Oliver Stone, of late, seems a little too eager to quickly make his signature on the historical record of our current political figures. Snowden, his great-man biopic of the governmental whistleblower Edward Snowden, follows in the vein of W., waiting barely for the historical record to begin churning on the retrospective before an attempt at a definitive statement on the man and his psychology is made.
Now, let all that not be necessarily to the film’s detriment. A film about interesting times should best be made in interesting times and the questions that Snowden raises are still pertinent enough to have room to explore in this film. And despite all I write above, there’s a certain blunt effectiveness to Snowden rather reminiscent of a 90s techno-thriller come to a quiet and real life.
The premise is familiar enough for anyone following the last few years of American politics. Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a hacker and security expert working for American intelligence after a rather grisly leg injury takes him out of contention for the Special Forces. He’s taken all over the world as a part of his job, his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) accompanying him.
Snowden’s a popular figure among his co-workers and supervisors, including composite CIA agent Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) and composite CIA engineer wonk Hank Forrester (Nicholas Cage). This puts Snowden into the increasing orbit of our ever-growing surveillance programs, the extent of which begins to sicken him and send him barrelling towards the decision over whether or not to tell the world.
There’s a frame story too, and that might be the start of the biggest dagger hanging over this film. It chronicles the aftermath of the historical record with journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) along with documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) meeting Snowden in Hong Kong to receive the information that he downloaded from government computers.
Which, if you’re not fortunate enough to have seen it already, is the setup for the Academy Award-winning Citizenfour, a far more adept take on essentially the same story, and a film whose shoes Snowden is trying desperately to fill. Often it tries to fill them by treading the exact same ground that Citizenfour covered. It leaves the frame story feeling superfluous. Competently directed and reasonably well-acted, sure, but why Stone sought to recreate the far more compelling and publically available true story is beyond me.
Already at a disadvantage, that leaves this leaning on the main historical narrative, the story of what made him a public figure rather than a cog in the Intelligence Machine. There are strands of compelling and important story in that narrative, and often it shines through exactly what appeals about this story. But let’s get through a little bit more of what doesn’t work, as to better understand what does.
Stone fundamentally believes in this as a Great Man narrative. His Snowden is a man come around to the truth of the world, woken up and compelled to do the right thing at all costs, to a world that seems determined to keep doing evil no matter who’s in charge.
The problem is that the Great Man narrative is honestly at odds with what’s compelling about this story. It sands off the edges, turns it into a righteous crusade and Snowden into a handsome Hollywood hacker hero.
I understand the role Lindsay Mills must play in his life and his decisions, and this is no bitter single man’s slight against the concept of a happy relationship. But the film often seems to play her less as a partner and more as a defiant trophy, the idea that he was this total hacker badass with a hot girlfriend. Their scenes of sex often seem more puerile and adolescent rather than the attempt at really getting across the violation of privacy.
Partially, I think that rests on casting Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role. He’s not at all bad, he seems dedicated and manages to give a quiet and thoughtful air under his Snowden. But he’s miscast in a major way, again, to lean into Stone’s Great Man narrative. You can give him all the weird haircuts and Kermit the Snowden voice you want, he’s still the chiseled and handsome JGL underneath it.
I rail against this because this takes the edge off the story, and avoids the ideas of what’s really interesting about Snowden that does occasionally shine through. In a way, the best version of Snowden is closer to last week’s Sully. It’s a story about an ordinary man just doing what he thinks is right. Snowden should be everyday heroism, and when it shines through is when the film really does work for me.
There are more than enough in this film that remembers that. Scenes of Snowden’s quirks and the decisions he’s having to make in concert with his relationship. One of my favorite touches is a sequence about halfway through when he’s given a field assignment to make friends with a banker so that the CIA can get an in with Saudi financiers, and Snowden finds himself completely incapable. When the film switches to that, that Snowden isn’t a spy or a Great Man but rather someone thrust into the position to do good who made the decision to do it is when this movie really does start to become compelling for me. When it lays out the conflict as one man against something as monolithic as the American Security State, that’s the Snowden that this could have been all the way through.
That’s also when Oliver Stone, the filmmaker that should be making Snowden, shines through. His righteous indignation become palpable and his flourishes become in service of the story. It’s the Great Man biopic that dulls this film, that turns it into a far too standard flipping through the pages of a historical narrative rather than letting the history come to life. It’s where his weird touches feel truly weird, instead of inspired.
If you want to learn about Edward Snowden, watch Citizenfour. If you’re hungry for more, wait for HBO to air Snowden.