On paper, Snowden looks like an American cinema classic in the making. Oliver Stone is at the helm with a solid screenwriter and cinematographer and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the lead actor surrounded by a fantastic group of supporting actors. The story is a real life spy thriller with real-life consequences that can speak about relevant topics. Unfortunately, despite the intriguing story, solid pacing and cinematography, and Levitt’s best performance to date, Stone doesn’t seem to know how to piece this story together with awkward tonal changes, preachy politics, a love story that runs out its welcome, and a tacky, eye-roll inducing resolution.
Directed by Olive Stone and written by Kieran Fitzgerald, Snowden tells the real-life story of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a CIA and NSA contractor who discovers the government has the ability to access private data from American citizens, and his journey of making the final decision to break the news wide open through professional journalists at The Guardian.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) truly brings Snowden to life. The imagery is spectacular with certain scenes that feel very psychedelic and ethereal, but help give the film texture. Some of the extreme angles and shots he takes are jarring and intimidating, including one that felt reminiscent of 1984 (a connection I’m sure Stone intended).
The overarching story is intriguing and at times suspenseful. Stone does his best to keep you interested in Snowden’s activities up until he makes the final decision to steal the documents, but sometimes it drags and grows dull. The intrigue lies more in who Snowden is and what brings him to his final conclusion, and Stone hones in on this.
However, the love story between Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) doesn’t have a point other than it being a part of Snowden’s personal life. While it is endearing at first, it quickly runs out its welcome. Stone puts the love story equal to the importance of Snowden’s act of espionage, but he never explains why it is as important or how it sheds light on the main character or plot. Woodley does her best to bring the Mills character to life, but there isn’t much to give from a one dimension “girlfriend” stereotype. This subplot drags down the main story and pacing, creating a muddled and sometimes boring middle.
After his work on Looper and The Walk, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was proving to be a talented method actor, but now with Snowden it’s safe to say Levitt is an outstanding actor likely to receive an Academy Award; maybe not for Snowden, but you never know. For a movie with the title of your main character, you need a strong actor to guide the audience, and Levitt fulfills that core responsibility. He slips so easily into Snowden’s mannerisms, deep voice, and posture that it is hard to distinguish between Levitt and Snowden himself.
The challenge is to act like Snowden but not come across as a parody, and I think Levitt struck the right balance. He does a fine job making him empathetic and the moral compass of the movie which is key for a political thriller with a bone to pick about government surveillance.
The character complexity stops at Snowden, unfortunately. All the other characters that interact with Snowden are hollow pieces trying to fill plot points, political agendas or love stories.
From Platoon all the way to W., Stone has made a name for himself with overly critical political films and Snowden is no different. What is different is his heavy-handed and on the nose exposition, which at times, becomes cringe worthy and amateurish. The subtext serves his purposes enough. Pounding the audience over the head with it only brings the film down.
Because it is such a surprising, jarring, and seat squirming scene, I can’t write off the resolution as anything other than an extremely poor choice by Stone. It’s a tacky, and again, heavy-handed approach to a film that otherwise shows promise, but is ruined by the desire to throw in propaganda and blur the lines between fact and fiction.
Snowden succeeds at making the audience think about their phone and computer usage, their privacy, and what we as a society will give up to secure our safety. But, that subtext and the narrative surrounding it isn’t enough to elevate the film to something greater than an average espionage film. If topics like Internet security, espionage, and privacy interest you, or you’re a fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, then you may find something to like in Snowden — but overall I think most will find it lacking.
Photos courtesy of: Open Road Films