In 2013, tinfoil conspiracy theories about mass surveillance of data by the US government became a reality when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the National Security Administration, turning over evidence of illegal covert operations to journalists and filmmakers.
The journalists were Glenn Greenwald of The Washington Post and Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian, and the filmmaker was Laura Poitras, who documented their meeting with Snowden as it unfolded in (almost) real-time in the 2014 documentary Citzenfour.
That film, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary the following year, had a sense of immediate urgency and purpose. It made for a unique chronicle of a historical event as it unfolded, made even more relevant by the fact that Snowden’s fate was still up in the air (he’s still in limbo in Moscow).
And now here’s the Hollywood version: Oliver Stone’s Snowden, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular whistleblower, Melissa Leo as filmmaker Poitras, Zachary Quinto as Greenwald, and Tom Wilkinson as MacAskill.
They reiterate the same conversations had in Poitras’ documentary – some lines of dialogue are word-for-word – and a funny thing happens: the urgency has dissipated, the purpose muddled. A glossy, phony Hollywood sheen has replaced something real and now that should matter to you.
The scenes with Poitras and the journalists are intended to be bookends, but because that’s where a lot of the drama unfolds, Stone and writer Kieran Fitzgerald, adapting the novels Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena and The Snowden Files by Luke Harding, rely on them to drive the narrative every few minutes.
In flashbacks, Levitt’s Snowden’s recounts his early days with the military and then the CIA. Rhys Ifans is slimily effective as Corbin O’Brian, a fictional CIA recruiter who brings Snowden into the fold and remains a close contact through his days in the organization.
Nicolas Cage (briefly) stars as another fictional creation, Hank Forrester, a disillusioned computer geek and CIA vet who serves as another kind of mentor to Snowden. It’s a small role, but Cage brings a humanity to the character that’s missing from much of the rest of the movie; so does Timothy Olyphant, as a spy with some less-than-above-board tactics who Snowden clashes with.
But too many scenes are devoted to Snowden’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley. The strained relationship between work and personal life is old-hat stuff, and pales in comparison to the CIA and NSA knowledge Snowden gains throughout the film, and what he ultimately does with it.
Snowden is a perfectly functional Hollywood-style biopic that conveys the basics of the central character’s life and discoveries and landmark leak of information. But anyone looking for a incisive view of the controversial central figure, consistently lauded onscreen as a hero, will leave disappointed.
It’s also a rather inert version of historically significant events, which is strange coming from director Stone, who brought a sense of immediacy to decades-old politics in films like JFK and Nixon. There’s a greater movie to be made here, one that focuses on what the whistle was blown on rather than the whistleblower himself.