Two out of five stars
Oliver Stone is, unquestionably, one of our greatest auteurs. That doesn’t, however, mean all of his films are great. His latest offering, "Snowden," is exhibit A.
Edward Snowden is a polarizing figure who was once one of the most wanted men in the world. Of course, there are many who believe that his revelation that our own government was spying on us in the same way it was spying on enemy and allied governments was a patriotic thing to do. But Snowden -- now living in Russia because he would be arrested if he came back home on espionage charges -- is also a compelling figure. In fact, Snowden, who has said that charges were not fair and offered to go to prison in the U.S., in real life is so compelling, not to mention articulate, that he may just be this film’s Achilles heel.
Stone’s two best decisions regarding this film were casting Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden and Shailene Woodley as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay. Their performances are flawless. Gordon-Levitt becomes Snowden and Woodley, as always, is a commanding and empathetic figure every time she enters the frame.
Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald introduce us to Snowden in a hotel where he’s about to hand over all of his information to journalists Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto). Snowden’s story then unfolds by cutting back and forth from his time with Greenwald, Poitras and, later, journalist Ewan MacAskill (Jim Broadent), to the evolution of his career, starting with his attempt to become a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier.
We flash back to the moment when Snowden’s body is simply unable to handle the physical demands of soldiering. He’s discharged, but as the doctor tells him, there are other ways he can serve his country. Snowden, a high school dropout, also happens to be a computer hacking genius. And as his future instructor and CIA boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) points out, in normal times Snowden probably wouldn’t qualify for the CIA, but these are not normal times: the CIA needs Snowden’s skills.
As Snowden ascends in the CIA and NSA, his exposure to the government’s spying methods increases, and he becomes conflicted. In the meantime, the pressure he’s under chips away at both his relationship with Lindsay and his health.
But here’s why Stone’s movie ultimately doesn’t work. Spoiler alert!
In the final scene, Gordon-Levitt is replaced by the real Snowden, who’s so earnest and real, it immediately makes you question why Stone didn’t just stick to the facts and come up with a less embellished story that’s more rooted in reality. And while casting Gordon-Levitt and Woodley was genius, Ifans, a terrific actor, is cartoonishly arch as O’Brian, while Nicholas Cage as CIA instructor Hank Forrestor, is a distraction. Furthermore, Quinto, also a fantastic actor, simply doesn’t ring true as Greenwald.
Snowden is a blatantly didactic exercise, but Stone’s efforts to educate his audience are undermined by a boring and perplexing narrative. In addition, the pacing seems more appropriate for an old-school espionage drama featuring rotary telephones and courier pigeons, than one about high-tech internet hacking and drone strikes.