Review: 'Snowden'

Oliver Stone's new biopic oversimplifies the life of the whistleblower
Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone's new biopic.

Oliver Stone's over-emphatic style can be alienating, particularly when he's over-explaining things that don't need explaining, while glossing over the more interesting details. Whether it was fair or not, W. had juice. Snowden is more of a generic hero's struggle that ends upbeat, with the title whistleblower (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receiving hugs and applause.

Edward Snowden was an employee of the CIA and the NSA (one good anti-joke here: it stands for "No Such Agency"). At these organizations, and later as a private contractor serving them, Snowden discovered that the government's data collection program was far more universal than the Obama administration claimed. Snowden finally went public with documents explaining how the massive surveillance program worked, with the help of selected journalists Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and the Guardian's Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), to whom Snowden gave a long briefing session in a Hong Kong hotel room.

In flashback, we follow Snowden as a young man. He was a high school dropout who fancied Star Wars, Joseph Campbell and Ayn Rand. Snowden tried to train for the Special Forces but broke his leg in boot camp. "There are other ways to serve your country," a doctor tells him, and with that Snowden goes to Langley.

Meanwhile, he meets Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) a left-winger who is against the Iraq War. The deep feelings people had for or against that war are reduced to the minor complications in a rom-com; when he kisses this free-spirited girl, Snowden jokes about the taste of liberalness on her lips. Over the course of assignments in posts as far apart as Geneva, Tokyo and Hawaii, Snowden absorbs a punishing workload, which batters his relationship. Snowden may be most interesting when it demonstrates how cyber-workaholism can make even Oahu seem like purgatory.

Lindsay is on the edge of manic pixiedom (on a first date, she makes Snowden pose for wacky photographs); she also teaches a stripper-pole dancing class that gives Snowden a flash of skin. Woodley is glammed up for the role and hard-muscled. She's forcing herself to fit this part. Lindsay never wants to let Snowden go. You've rarely seen so much clinging in a movie.

In a small part as Forester, an in-house whistleblower who damaged his own CIA career, Nicolas Cage seems to match Stone's thunderous intentions as a director. It's a pleasure to watch Cage give meaning to every line. When he makes his murmur of welcome to Snowden, the new man on the CIA campus—"You've come to the right little whorehouse"—we see the kind of juice and salt Snowden could have had.

Stone has a talented, highly abstract cinematographer in Anthony Dod Mantle—a collaborator with Danny Boyle and Lars Von Trier. Mantle brings out the hot scribbles of color in the Hong Kong skyline, the cold glow of blue-white glass booths that the analysts inhabit when they're gathering data. Thousands of glowing electronic filaments, in an animation of the world wide web, resolve themselves into a shape, becoming the iris of a massive eye. When Snowden finally comes out into daylight, he becomes a black silhouette on a white-out screen, which dwindles into nothingness.

Gordon-Levitt is juxtaposed against taller actors so that we'll always feel protective of our driven young hero. One inspired moment has Snowden ambushed by a cinema-screen sized Skyping—we weren't aware that there was such a big screen in the room. It's a call from Snowden's saturnine boss and mentor Corbin (Rhys Ifans). The mammoth talking head looms, dwarfing Snowden. Corbin tries to make a deep intrusion into Snowden's personal life look like a favor that the older man is doing to calm a troubled employee's mind. The scene is unbelievable, but it has style.

Stone explains Snowden with ease: he turned whistleblower because The Man went after the woman he loved. The problem, as in Citizenfour, is that Snowden is telling a story that isn't finished yet. While Snowden likely deserves to be pardoned, there's a certain fishiness to his story—some part of it we haven't got yet. And you'd have to be less credulous than Oliver Stone to discern that lack.

R; 134 Mins.

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