As a story about one famous real-life whistleblower, Oliver Stone’s new film “Snowden” often feels redundant despite some fascinating parts. While its subjects are certainly relevant especially at this point, the movie does not have many things to surprise or enlighten me, and I came to notice more of its weak aspects even while recognizing its several good aspects including its solid lead performance.
After its opening sequence which shows documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) meeting Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) directly for the first time in Hong Kong on June 3rd, 2013, the movie goes back to 2004, when Snowden was undergoing a basic training for joining the US Army Special Forces. He was as eager and determined as other trainees, but then he was discharged due to a serious injury in his right leg, so he had to find another way to serve his country.
That is how he comes to apply for a position at the CIA, and his considerable talent in computer technology is soon noticed by Deputy Director Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifan), who is in charge of Snowden and other recruits at the CIA training center in Virginia. Although Snowden is not exactly ideal for the agency considering his rather unsatisfying result from lie detector screening, O’Brian decides to take a chance with Snowden, so he gives Snowden the first taste of the dark, shady sides of global surveillance. In O’Brian’s jaded view, the ends justify the means, and he emphasizes that to Snowden and other recruits at one point when their agency is criticized on the media for its massive wiretapping on civilians.
Meanwhile, Snowden begins a relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a girl with whom he has corresponded for a while through a dating website. Despite their difference in political views, they find themselves drawn to each other as they meet each other for the first time, and she has no problem with his occupation while not asking too much about that. When he is later assigned to a post in Geneva, she willingly moves along with him, and she even helps his work a bit during one amusing scene unfolded at a party full of potential targets to be exploited by his agency.
After getting himself involved in one small covert operation, Snowden comes to know more about what the US government has been doing without public knowledge, and there is a disturbing scene where an NSA employee shows him how easily he can acquire the personal information of various people around Snowden’s target. After a few search words and clicks, they quickly get what they are looking for, and Snowden is understandably disturbed as realizing how that certain piece of acquired information is used to manipulate their target.
As he becomes disillusioned about his work, Snowden decides to leave CIA, but then he finds himself working for NSA as a contractor employee, and he continues to do the jobs he does not like much. As nothing is changed much even under the Obama administration, he becomes more conflicted than before, and that eventually leads him to a fateful decision which changes his life forever.
The director Oliver Stone does not hesitate to take sides with Snowden from the beginning, but the adapted screenplay by Stone and his co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald, which is based on two nonfiction books “The Snowden Files” by Luke Harding and “Time of the Octopus” by Anatoly Kucherena, does not provide enough human dimension to its hero. We get lots of information about Snowden’s career as it is chronicled in the movie, but we never get to know much about him on the whole although he comes to us as a decent, conscientious hero thanks to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s nice understated acting.
The movie tries to keep things rolling as often going back and forth between the main plotline and the other plotline associated with Poitras and Greenwald, but it only comes to lose more narrative momentum due to the lack of suspense in both parts, and it is inevitably compared with Poitra’s Oscar-winning documentary film “Citizenfour” (2014), which vividly captures the progress of her meeting with Snowden on the screen. Although the movie recreates well a few moments from Poitra’s documentary, it fails to reach to that nervous verisimilitude of the documentary, and then it is further hampered by its overlong ending which could be trimmed a bit.
The performers surrounding Gordon-Levitt fill their supporting roles as required. While Rhys Ifan effectively exudes the gray cynicism of his character, Nicholas Cage briefly appears as a veteran CIA guy on the opposite position of Ifan’s character, Timothy Olyphant plays an untrustworthy CIA agent with whom Snowden works in Geneva. Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, and Joely Richardson are under-utilized in their thankless roles, and so is Shailene Woodley, who does not have many things to do except looking concerned or frustrated during her scenes with Gordon-Levitt.
Since “Nixon” (1995), Stone’s career has been rather bumpy during recent years. While there were entertaining films like “Any Given Sunday” (1999), “W.” (2008), and “Savages” (2012), there were also a fair share of disappointments like “U Turn” (1997), “World Trade Center” (2006), and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010). While it is not entirely a failure, “Snowden” belongs to the latter group, and I think it could be improved by tighter and more focused storytelling. Sure, it is about the important issues we should care about, but it is not engaging enough to make us more aware of them.