James Cole Clay // Film Critic
Oliver Stone’s SNOWDEN may be one of the most challenging films to review this year. While on one hand the subject matter is deeply personal (quite literally) and maintains to be relevant, ethics are questioned. We find it more difficult to decide where to draw the line when it comes to online privacy, yet 29-year-old intelligence analyst Edward Snowden stands at the center. It’s an utterly compelling premise that invites intrigue and insight to one of the largest stories since 9/11. Yet, it was portrayed in Laura Poitras’ note perfect documentary CITIZENFOUR and doesn’t need Stone’s direction and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular character to tell audiences something that hasn’t been presented before. SNOWDEN finds a way to be simultaneously fast-moving and painfully sluggish.
Stone can be a visceral director with an appetite to critique his characters (he did this well in W.), but Stone’s version of Snowden (outside of his role as the world’s most famous whistleblower) doesn’t have much going on personality wise. Sure, he’s got a girlfriend in Lindsey Mills (Shailene Woodley) and a kush job that pays well. Other than a few musing on his conservative ideals that flip by the end of the film, we never really quite figure out how we got to this point. Levitt and Woodley do have a chemistry, but those two have a rich history of selling incredible on-screen romances, which become the best parts of the film. (And oddly enough Woodley outshines Levitt in many of their scenes together.)
The politics of the film heavily lean towards Snowden’s favor; never at any point was there an opportunity to truly confront the ethics being called into question. Not that it’s Stone and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald’s job to make a divisive film; I just expected to be challenged a little more from such subject matter as leaking highly classified NSA files. There’s also some flowery hacker jargon that echoes throughout the film that’s kind of fun.
However, Levitt does nail the impression and posture of Snowden– from the way he touches his glasses all the way down to the more obvious things like the cadence in his speech and voice. Props to JGL for committing the time to get it right… but the performance fades in and out from being serviceable, all the way to incredibly annoying. I just loved the days of Gordon-Levitt playing more subdued roles, but that’s only a matter of personal taste.
SNOWDEN’s algorithm doesn’t fall completely apart. There’s tons of famous faces in supporting roles: Zachary Quinto plays journalist Glenn Greenwald and yells a lot; Nicolas Cage plays a teacher-mentor guy to Snowden, which was jarring; and finally, Melissa Leo as documentarian Laura Poitras brings nothing to the table other than concerned stares.
Despite the flaws of the film, the non-fictionalized version story is insanely compelling and deserves to be told– whether you read the Guardian’s report on Snowden, the aforementioned documentary or see this movie.
SNOWDEN opens nationwide Friday, September 16.