Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Scott Eastwood, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant
Director Oliver Stone is no stranger at tackling controversial true-life subjects. His latest is that of infamous whistleblower Edward Snowden, here played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The film is shaped around Snowden’s filmed confession in 2013 where he identifies himself as the man who leaked thousands of classified documents as evidence to how the government tracks our every move. He opens up with documentarian Laura Poitras (Leo) and two journalists from The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Wilkinson) in a Hong Kong hotel. Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour, went on to win the Oscar in 2015. During his confession, the film cuts back and forth dating back to 2004 to when he was discharged from the army. He is told to find another way to serve our country. He decides to join the CIA in 2006 where his programming skills and knowledge of code don’t go unnoticed. His work eventually takes him to the NSA and another rabbit hole of security, cover-ups, and lies at the hands of the government eat away at his soul. Throughout all of this, he attempts to have a relationship with a photographer named Lindsay (Woodley) who remains innocent and void of the conspiracy bug that hits Snowden. No matter the harm it ends up doing on his body and on their relationship, he feels that he is the only one out there that can put a stop to the government’s actions or at least put the information out in the open for the public to view.
Oliver Stone has built his career on making political films whether they are about the war or terrorism like Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon, and World Trade Center or a look into controversial presidents like JFK, Nixon, and W. I’ll be honest and state that I haven’t been a fan of his later work. W., Alexander, and Any Given Sunday have been one-time viewings due to missteps in their storytelling. I applaud his efforts at making his opinion front and center in every movie. There’s no denying where he stands on certain subjects. The very same can be said for Snowden as he is very clear in how he treats his subject. Snowden’s viewed as an innocent genius who got in too deep but should be thought of as a hero for bringing this information to the forefront. Stone’s script with Kieran Fitzgerald (The Homesman) keeps the language very clear and easy to follow Snowden’s work. It never gets bogged down in the nitty gritty aspects of government intel or computer jargon. I think Stone would lose half the audience if the script got too tech savvy.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises, The Walk) is ideally cast as Edward Snowden. He can pull off that geeky cute look, and once he gets the five o’clock shadow and a few choice shirts, he really starts to look like the Snowden we’ve come to know. It’s a very different kind of performance from what we’ve seen from him before. He turns off that playful charm he often brings to any character and makes him far more straight-laced slowly leading into fear and paranoia. He completely morphs his voice into a lower, more monotone sound void of the musicality I attribute to his normal tone. The real Snowden is a bit taller than Gordon-Levitt, but Stone makes good of his smaller stature to make a point. There are direct references to him being small to play up the towering aspects of some of the CIA instructors and government figures that get in his way. There’s a very specific moment where his former CIA instructor, played by Rhys Ifans, is teleconferencing with him. Stone has Ifans looming over and into the camera like some eye in the sky, god, or big brother type coming down on Snowden.
Stone mentions at the beginning of the movie that this is a dramatization of the years and events leading up to Snowden’s confession. Part of his attempt to humanize Snowden was to spend a large portion of the film devoted to his relationship with Lindsay Mills. As those scenes progressed, the dialogue and situations between them felt far more fictionalized than his work with the CIA, NSA, or the scenes taking place in Hong Kong. My guess is that Snowden and Mills have kept their relationship private forcing Stone to elaborate on what may have happened in those trying years between them. There’s something ironic about Snowden wanting his life to stay private when he’s risking other people’s data that would come forward in his attempt to expose the NSA’s wrong doing. Shailene Woodley (Divergent) is tasked at playing Mills without a lot of footage or information known about her to draw upon. The film shows them meeting through a dating app called Geek-Mate. Woodley definitely plays Mills as the nerdy photographer type who’s outgoing enough to get Snowden to open up. Did this really happen? Did Mills really get interested in pole dancing classes? I get Stone’s intention with showcasing this aspect of Snowden’s life, but some of his choices seemed a bit too easy.
Stone covers a lot of ground without turning it into a three or four hour opus like some of his other movies tend to feel like. Rounding out his strong cast are Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, and Rhys Ifans in notable roles. He also has people like Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant, and Nicolas Cage popping up in even smaller roles. I would have liked to see all three given more to do, but that goes back to making the movie even longer. I was pleasantly surprised to see Cage pop up in a legitimate movie once again. His career has taken a nosedive in recent years, and Stone gives him the small role of being one of Snowden’s CIA instructors. He doesn’t need to overact or be a crazy buffoon.
The release of Snowden has gone through a few shifts from fall 2015 to March 2016 to now being released in September 2016. I like this position as a way of making a statement going into this charged election season. If you go in with a very neutral stance or lack of knowledge on Snowden, your opinion of him may change to fit Stone’s viewpoint. If you find him a traitor for leaking classified documents, endangering other people’s lives, and threatening national security, Snowden the man and the movie will irk you even more.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Stone’s best film in many years
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS