Snowden is a mediocre portrait of the most notorious whistleblower in the world. What’s shocking is that director Oliver Stone shied away from themes that are synonymous with his films (government power, war, secrecy) and sought to humanize a man who risked it all to do what he felt was right. While it was refreshing to see Stone taking a different approach with this highly topical film, humanizing Snowden creates an incredibly bland narrative that transforms a highly engaging topic into a tepid one.
Stone uses Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour (about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden) as a launching pad into a relatively complex narrative. While it would have been easy to make a political statement (which, given Stone’s past projects, would have been no surprise), he crafts an entirely logical sequence of events that doesn’t side with those who would make Snowden a hero or those who would execute him on sight… the epitome of milquetoast story-telling. In spite of this, Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers his best performance to date. It’s apparent that he’s studied up on Edward Snowden and embodies the controversial former NSA contractor while on screen. His performance is the buoy that keeps this film afloat.
Levitt portrays Edward Snowden as a man who is disenchanted with the United States monitoring our every move and begins to question the powers that be. Indeed one could make an argument that Snowden is similar to some other famous characters in previous Stone films. For Example, Jim Garrison in JFK became disenchanted with authority as he attempted to unravel a vast conspiracy surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. However, in JFK we saw a gritty filmmaker who sought out a truth and didn’t shy away from controversy. Snowden brought out a complacency in Stone that I was unaware he possessed. Where was that urgency to point the finger at the government for conducting illegal surveillance of its citizens? Why even tackle this subject matter if you weren’t going to do anything with it?
Instead of taking a more deliberate approach to telling the story of what transpired at the NSA, Stone shines a big spotlight on Edward’s relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shaline Woodley). Mills doesn’t move the story along but does certainly interject a heavy dose of melodrama. Will he tell her the truth? Why won’t he tell her truth? Will she stay with him? Why is she staying with him? The moment we were forced to endure a scene involving Snowden gazing into a glass kitchen door and observing his girlfriend talking to another man, this film became less of a movie directed by Oliver Stone and more like one directed by the late Gary Marshall. Woodley’s performance is a very stilted and typical portrayal of a girlfriend in “turmoil. It’s perplexing what the director saw in her. Why would you give such a typical portrayal more screen time than you gave Joan Allen’s tremendous performance as the first lady in Nixon?
One of the few highlights of Snowden was the music composed by Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters. Armstrong and Peters have written notes that are both haunting and evoke and anxious undertones found throughout the film. So if anyone reading this is moved by great music, then, by all means, please purchase a ticket to see this movie ASAP. However, if you are irritated by bland retellings of a story that has been all over the news, then avoid Snowden at all cost.