There's a great movie out there right now about (in)famous NSA leaker Edward Snowden. It's called Citizenfour, the stunning and powerful documentary by Laura Poitras. Even though that film mostly consisted of Snowden sitting in a room talking to journalists you could feel the weighty importance of it. Following on the heels of that, it's tough for Oliver Stone's dramatized Snowden to have the same impact, but the director's passion for radical protest is undeniable and infectious, if a little too simplified.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, giving an appropriately deadpan performance, plays Snowden, who if you ever saw him in interviews looks and sounds a bit awkward and reserved. Or perhaps he's just paranoid. Certainly Stone makes the case for the latter, while also making the case that Snowden is unquestionably a hero for revealing the existence of the government's global surveillance program. Others might call him a traitor, but in this movie those people don't exist. Such hero worship is a double-edge sword that Stone was obviously content to live with, even though it prevents a full accounting of Snowden's actions and their repercussions. The film begins as Snowden first meets muckraking journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto, the real Greenwald wishes he looked like that) and Poitras (Melissa Leo, underused), taking them back to his Hong Kong hotel room where much of Citizenfour was filmed. In fact, the centerpiece of the story is basically a recreation, serving as the platform from which the rest of Snowden's life can be explored.
And that life is one that is initially driven by a neo-conservative mindset, especially in a post 9/11 society where national security is paramount. It's safe to say the film is, when boiled down to its essence, about how Snowden evolved away from that line of thinking and began questioning his own government. Early on we see that his time in the military didn't really suit him, and later we find out he's not really cut out for the life of a secret agent. It's behind a desk, cracking codes and hacking secure networks in defense of our country that he finds a home. But it's also where he sees everything that is truly going on behind the scenes, where decisions are made daily that trample our Constitutional rights, using the "War on Terror" as cover.
Stone loves this part of the story. It's full of the shaded skullduggery that he revels in, where secretive government cabals use their technology to black out entire countries, or to switch on your deskcam and watch what you're doing in real-time. Only in this case it's all true, not the stuff of some fictional spy movie. Discovering that the government can literally tap into the lives of anybody, through their email, social networks, and more, forces Snowden to re-evaluate his faith in the system. But it's hard to connect with Snowden on that level. Most people open their lives up to surveillance every day, willingly. So the screenplay, penned by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, gives Snowden a motivation easier to relate to: the safety of the woman he loves. That would be Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who he meets cute on a geek dating site and instantly bonds with despite her liberal leanings. The film depicts her as the strongest influence on his life, far above the CIA big-wigs (played by Rhys Ifans plays an especially creepy one) who are constantly looking to tap into his overzealous patriotism. It's a smart move making the relationship between Snowden and Mills the centerpiece. While some of their scenes come off as melodramatic and cheesy, it's important in establishing that Snowden isn't just looking out for himself.
The drawback is that so much of Snowden's story is told in a standard, by-the-numbers fashion unsuitable for something this complex. There's little attempt to engage on the morality of what Snowden ultimately does, when we desperately need to see him struggle with that. Otherwise it's too easy, and his descent into psychosis doesn't feel legit. The film is best when Stone gives in to temptation and let's his conspiracy-laden mind run wild, like during a sex scene where Snowden can't stop himself from staring at the deskcam, wondering if someone is watching on the other end. Another features Ifans' character on a gigantic video wall, looming over Snowden like some kind of mad god ready to strike. When Stone wants to create a truly unnerving atmosphere, one where Big Brother is watching around every corner, he's still the guy to turn to.
Most of the supporting cast, which also includes Keith Stanfield, Scott Underwood, and Nicolas Cage, are solid but underutilized. Woodley has decent chemistry with Gordon-Levitt, enough that we can feel Snowden's hurt when his career begins to affect his relationship. As for Gordon-Levitt he does his best to humanize a man many now see as the enemy. While the voice is a bit distracting, it's in Gordon-Levitt's body language that we see the burden Snowden has chosen to carry. Clearly, Stone thinks Snowden was right to take on that hefty responsibility. Will Snowden change the minds of those who think he deserves to be locked up? Probably not, but it could go a long way in helping them understand why he did it, and why some look at him as a patriot.
Rating: 3 out of 5