It’s great to see Oliver Stone with a fire in his belly again. His previous film, Savages, a violent crime drama about California pot dealers, played like a laugh-free Pineapple Express and is easily Stone’s weakest. On the other hand, Snowden is a return to form, as it downplays Stone’s tendency for excess and provides a solid, complex portrayal of its polarizing central figure.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower whose unveiling of top secret US government documents led him into exile. We meet Snowden in 2013, when he’s hiding in a Hong Kong hotel, and the narrative jumps around to show us the events that shaped him. We see his failed bid to become a soldier, his introduction to politically passionate Lindsay Mills (played by Shailene Woodley) and his encounters with government agents, whose cavalier attitude towards their work inspired Snowden to run and tell the world what he discovered.
Linda Poitras’ 2014 documentary Citizenfour is perhaps the most definitive take on Snowden. It provided you-are-there intensity and a view of Snowden as his life was in immediate danger.
Initially, Gordon-Levitt’s decision to closely mimic Snowden’s voice distracts, because it’s so obviously an actor’s affectation. His approach grew on me and his performance is excellent. A nice surprise is Woodley. The romance between Snowden and Mills is pivotal and Woodley (breaking free from the Divergent franchise) gives a sexy, livewire performance. She and Gordon-Levitt have great chemistry and make the romantic subplot as involving as all the globe-trotting intrigue.
Stone has always been exceptional at assembling a great ensemble of actors and his latest is no exception. In particular, Zachary Quinto (perfect as Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who broke the story), Nicolas Cage (endearing as a composite character), Melissa Leo (an ideal Poitras) and Scott Eastwood (as Snowden’s no-nonsense superior) are first-rate.
Snowden tells an engrossing story, is rich with ideas and hones in on what matters right now. The topic of government surveillance, how it’s supposed to protect but becomes a form of control, is first and foremost on Stone’s mind.
Here’s a real surprise: this is as close to a bipartisan Oliver Stone movie as we’re ever likely to see. Stone criticizes the previous and current U.S. Presidents, as well as stances The White House has taken regarding online privacy. Stone goes after various targets and brings up topics that don’t offer easy solutions. It seems he’s aiming to make a more balanced, less biased film than before. At least, until the very end.
The biggest mistake Stone makes is putting Edward Snowden in his own movie. In their concluding scenes, both Gordon-Levitt and the real Snowden are bathed in a Spielbergian glow. Clearly, Stone means to celebrate Snowden but the hero worship of the final moments take away the careful balance the rest of the film demonstrates. Also, seeing the real Snowden somewhat undermines Gordon-Levitt’s performance, who worked hard to get under his character’s skin.
A lot of the visual cues and dialogue in Snowden are very on-the-nose. Expecting subtlety from Stone is probably foolish. Yet, this is one of his strongest recent films, as his directorial panache and personal commentary are in plain sight but, for the most part, not hindering the film’s ability to captivate and enlighten.
Thankfully, Stone’s missteps don’t derail his movie, which, above all, is an entertaining reflection of real events and not a documentary. Snowden is suspenseful, always intriguing and overloaded with great scenes. While not without flaws, Stone’s film captures our uncertain times and provides yet another great conversation-starter. He did that 25 years ago with JFK, his masterpiece, and has done it again. Stone’s movies are alive with urgency and not to be missed.