There’s no more obvious candidate for directing a Edward Snowden biopic than Oliver Stone, the reigning king of conspiratorial left-wing political thrillers. However, the definitive movie about Snowden’s dramatic leak of NSA files already exists: Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour.” Stone’s “Snowden” recounts the same events, using them as a framing device to recount the young character’s radicalization. As a result, “Snowden” largely becomes the CliffsNotes “Citizenfour,” now with a Hollywood gloss.
We find the defector (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose monotonous intonations echo Snowden’s own) meeting with a camera-wielding Poitras (an underutilized Melissa Leo), along with former Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald (an overzealous Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson on autopilot). That interrogation shapes “Snowden” as it flashes back from the 2013 encounter to 2004, then works its way toward the present, as the former hard-right patriot lands a plum gig in the CIA before growing to question its voyeuristic tactics.
Launching into Snowden’s discharge from a military training facility in Georgia, the movie shifts to his swift ascension in the CIA, where his slick knack for creating covert communication systems catches the eye of Orwellian trainer Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans, who gets increasingly Big Brother-like as the story moves along). During his time in Washington, the stone-faced Snowden harbors a post-9/11 conservative mindset, supporting overseas incursions and taking pride in his mission. His ascension is saddled with the sort of nuance-free dialogue Stone often favors as he cuts to the chase. “Bombs won’t stop terrorism,” Snowden’s told. “Only brains.”
In the midst of his education, Snowden meets cute with future girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley, perfectly cast as Snowden’s plucky opposite). Ostensibly the movie’s manic pixie dream girl, and tasked with rescuing the principled Snowden from his neocon mindset, she seduces him outside the White House as they stroll past an Iraq war protest. (“Tastes like liberal,” he mutters after their first kiss.) While their romance has a reductive, borderline soap-opera quality, Stone’s script (co-written by Kieran Fitzgerald and adapted in-name-only from a novelization by Snowden’s Russian lawyer) wisely makes it the centerpiece of a narrative that finds the man motivated not only by his principles to speak out, but also for safety of the woman he loves as their life together falls under government scrutiny.
While Stone dilutes Snowden’s odyssey into a watchable drama, revelations about NSA spy tactics steal the show. As Snowden learns about the full extent to which the government spies on ordinary Americans, Stone cuts to snappy hacking sequences filled with sparkling computer graphics, set to spunky techno music, and regularly zeroes in on his character’s eyes to emphasize his struggle with the full extent of everything he can see. Slickly assembled and energized by Anthony Dod Mantle’s high-contrast images, “Snowden” excels at presenting a world of shadowy exchanges amid a constant flow of information.
Unfortunately, that only makes the film’s pedestrian approach to its central drama stand out. The central plot of “Snowden” is so straightforward it makes you pine for the wilder filmmaker of “Natural Born Killers” who would really dig into the zeitgeist of today’s digitally addicted society. Glimmers of the filmmaker’s unhinged tendencies crop up in some of the bigger sequences, chief among them an audacious sex scene that outdoes “Munich” in its overstatement: As Lindsay mounts her lover in the dark, his eyes drift to a dormant laptop camera as he grows increasingly paranoid about losing his privacy. It’s an absurd moment that works, as Snowden’s mounting fears mirror those of the American public in the wake of his revelations.
Elsewhere, “Snowden” struggles to inject weight to a conflict that already speaks on its own terms. As Greenwald, Quinto lands exactly one big scene, getting into a shouting match with his Guardian editor about running the story while Snowden lurks nearby. It’s not so overwrought that it derails the movie, but the routine dramaturgy buries the urgency. There’s a thankless role for Nicolas Cage as one of the disgruntled CIA staffers cheering on Snowden from afar, and bit parts for various young coders whom Snowden initially regards as peers. But their wily enthusiasm about their digital prowess rarely goes further than sub-Aaron Sorkin asides. “I’m going to make Facebook my bitch,” one asserts about his hacking expertise.
“Snowden” rises and falls on the presentation of its hero, and Gordon-Levitt’s deadpan performance isn’t entirely engaging. For such a complicated figure that’s fair enough, and the actor does grow into the part as the movie continues along. Nevertheless, nothing can beat the real thing, and Stone realizes as much. The final scene puts Snowden on camera to explain himself, and as the music swells, Stone even manages to create the impression of a happy ending. No matter its flaws, the cheesy finale allows Stone to co-opt the language of Hollywood to salute a divisive figure. On its own terms, that amounts to a radical statement, if not a great movie.
“Snowden” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens theatrically September 16.