‘Snowden’ proves to be a tame outing for director Oliver Stone

By Daniel Monahan

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in a scene from the movie "Snowden" directed by Oliver Stone. (Open Road Films/TNS)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in a scene from the movie “Snowden” directed by Oliver Stone. (Open Road Films/TNS)

“Snowden” is a straightforward biographical drama that lacks the gusto of director Oliver Stone’s previous features and is vastly overshadowed by the superb, award-winning documentary “Citizenfour.”

Stone opens the film in Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel for the meeting between documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), The Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill (Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson) and the now notorious Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Snowden leads them to a hotel room, draws the curtains to a close and instructs them to place their cell phones into the microwave.

There is a sense that their meeting holds a great deal of importance. The goal? Expose the National Security Agency’s unethical data collection and mass surveillance programs.

In 2013, Edward Snowden handed over thousands of classified documents to journalists that revealed the NSA’s secrets. Rather than dump the information on the internet, he entrusted journalists with the duty of handling the sensitive information. Snowden has since been charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the hot-button topic of whistleblowing has never been as well discussed.

Oliver Stone, a director known for depicting American controversies (“JFK,” “Platoon”) frames the tale using this meeting in Hong Kong. Stone repetitively returns to this moment, often taking the viewer out of thrilling scenes of espionage elsewhere. While speaking in front of Poitras’ camera lens, Snowden recounts his past few years by way of flashback.

The film jumps back to 2004 in order to witness the moments when Snowden managed to break both of his legs in the Army Reserve Special Forces training. It’s clear that he doesn’t want to abandon his country following the setback, so he joins the CIA to continue his service. Snowden, a self-described patriot and conservative, loves his country. Stone makes it clear to the viewer that Snowden doesn’t resent his government and isn’t dead-set on revealing its secrets.

Stone demonstrates that Snowden is a computer mastermind during a scene in which he completes a programming test hours before his peers are able to. Stone treats the audience to hyper-stylized shots of computer screens and adds in the thrilling tones of techno music, which effectively distracts from the generally boring nature of programming.

His superior, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) makes it clear the magnitude of the position and what is at stake, saying “If there’s another 9/11, it’ll be your fault.” The work that he’s being instructed to do has national security implications, both abroad and domestic.

The story also follows Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), which is constantly threatened by his work for the government. The audience witnesses the negative effects of stress on both of them. Continuing as an analyst for the NSA as well, Snowden eventually comes across classified programs that are being used to spy on civilians. He begins to question whether his government has been overstepping its’ bounds and decides to take action.

The Snowden and Mills romance stands out as the weakest portion in the film, though it boasts two great performances. Stone constantly reminds viewers of the strain on the couple with repetitive scenes of debate between the two characters. The intent is to develop the audience’s sympathetic feelings toward Snowden, but what it really does is detract from the larger story of government surveillance.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s casting as the titular whistleblower is one of the film’s biggest strengths. A highly underrated talent, he maintains a skillful control over Snowden’s mannerisms and plays the part with gravitas and poise. Opposite him as Mills, Shailene Woodley also impresses. The two have good chemistry, which makes up for a lackluster script that often holds them back.

The film is full of familiar actors who deliver key supporting turns. Most notable out of the ensemble cast are enjoyable performances from Robert Firth, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Timothy Olyphant and even Nicolas Cage.

Oliver Stone doesn’t blatantly take Snowden’s side here. The story clearly leans toward Snowden, but Stone crafts a story that well represents NSA supporters. The screenplay, crafted by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, aims to make you ponder the issue of surveillance and to make your own conclusion at the end.

Stone really doesn’t add much for audience members already familiar with the Snowden case. It’s a straightforward telling of true events. “Snowden” didn’t quite keep me engaged, and I often found myself gazing around the theater. But for those going in without knowing much about this case, there are plenty of revelations that will leave you just as paranoid about our government as Snowden himself.

Daniel Monahan can be reached at [email protected].