Snowden full movie review - You know too much, Ed Snow
Snowden may be Oliver Stone's least controversial movie.
Sure, it's a gripping, topical portrait of the era's most renowned techno-Robin Hood figure, whose whistleblowing rocked the world, critiqued as either an empowering exposé of unconscionable government overreach, or as unpatriotic treason. It's a suitably robust subject for the director who has cinematically rattled the cages of two U.S. presidents (one still in office), and mapped out an exhaustive conspiracy treatise of the assassination of a third. And perhaps it's just that - the film practically writes itself, and its execution leaves the same nagging tickle of there being preciously few surprises along the way. But Snowden isn't a film with surprises on the brain - the brazen violation of the NSA's global surveillance he publicized is shock enough. It's a film that plays up the familiarity of its sordid subject matter as a taut, playfully Orwellian 'political thriller.' And it's all the more deeply unsettling and necessary viewing for it.
It's immediately apparent that Stone isn't too bogged down in solemn moralizing to have a little fun. Relishing in the exposure and expectations of entertainment even in an issues-driven film, he has a ball satirically aping the slick cinematography and pulse-pounding tension building of Hollywood spy, action, and heist genres (there's a future drinking game of 'spot the Captain America references' afoot, though goofy, out-of-place Nic Cage is disappointingly/necessarily restrained). You can practically hear Stone snickering behind the camera as Rhys Ifans (even more silkily reptilian here than in The Amazing Spider-Man)'s sinister NSA mentor - "O'Brien," naturally - looms over Snowden from a gigantic video screen in a hooting Orwell tribute. Why? To slyly draw out the disconnect of the age-old Hollywood escapism being applied to a disturbingly real context, of course. Snowden's thesis is that the NSA's involvement in public lives is so outrageously evil, it must be true.
Still, this flirtation with Hollywood thrills isn't just enjoyable - it also helps offset the exposition density of Stone's script, which barrels ahead with full JFK-manifesto steam, rendering the complicated and controversial context crucially comprehensible. Granted, we do lose some nuance of the why and how Snowden's work with the NSA both exposed and contributed to unprecedented extremes of surveillance and privacy violation in the name of national security. Other interludes are cheerfully, transparently fictionalized (Snowden's savant level entrance exam to the NSA, and overseas spy missions that no computer technician would be trusted with). These may feel inevitable in the interests of running time and genre, but remain problematic, blurring the divide between escapist Hollywood fable and devastating reality.
And there's the rub: positing the film so blatantly as mouthpiece of Snowden's side of the story - literally by the end - fumble somewhat the crafting of Snowden the character. Naturally, the volcanically opinionated Stone has no pretences of objectivity, but Snowden is a somewhat bristling reminder of Stone's monolithic, old school romanticism. His script overworks to position Snowden as an earnest paragon of Jim Garrison 'Murrca, anchoring beats on his Ideals, Torment (Snowden's epilepsy is treated as one more hurdle for him to stoically overcome), and relationship with a good woman he loves but who can't understand his Commitment to the Cause (Shaileen Woodley; spunky and charismatic beyond her tiresomely thin 'suffering love interest' archetype). There's no denying, political biases aside, that Snowden's actions showed unbelievable courage, competence, and integrity. Still, witnessing Anthony Dod Mantle's lilting cinematography and Craig Armstrong's score practically swoon over him like stylistic refugees from an unchecked Steven Spielberg film is enough to make even the most ardent supporters reel.
A more interesting, nuanced take would've poked more deeply at Snowden's ideological slide from his initial, more libertarian leanings, to his investment in the Obama administration would repeal the dubiously ethical 'counterterrorism' espionage policies Snowden immediately sniffed out (though Stone does evocatively capture the rapture of hope of Obama's election day), to his eventual exposé (Stone thankfully, resists any turning point epiphany clichés). Instead, Stone truncates the narrative through temporal cross-cutting to the present, with Snowden imparting his story to a trio of harried journalists (Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, and Melissa Leo, all of whom generously brew tension), which saddles the film with a disappointingly choppy, 'clip show' biopic rhythm. Still, for a film facilitating such a crucial cultural conversation in such an urgent, accessible fashion, these faults, none the least being Stone's peppering of cheeseball metaphors (the instantly stale motif of Snowden repeatedly photographed by his girlfriend; a laptop camera transfiguring into a leering eye), are easily forgivable enough, though they do cost the film the crisp timelessness of an All the President's Men, or even the more recent The Social Network.
That said, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's casting is the make-or-break that lends the film its soul. Beyond his uncanny vocal mimicry, Gordon-Levitt digs into the core of Snowden's fierce idealism, working wiry charisma out of his steadfast competence, and the agonizing isolation of his inability to vocalize his concerns over his own workplace's actions. He may be too boundlessly likable to play Snowden as enigmatically as he'd like (though his bursts of curt selfishness - "I wanted power, prestige, and to live in Japan" - are effective), but his quieter moments - allowing flecks of doubt to cross his eyes, or his jaw to subtly tense - demonstrate a commendably committed performance easily worthy of his subject's celebrity mystique.
Teasing Hollywood pastiche and schmaltzy romanticism aside, Snowden is at its strongest when, like its subject, it sticks to its issues. Future takes may tap into the ripple effects of Snowden's whistleblowing with greater nuance and less bias, but, as an impressively entertaining manifesto informing viewers as to the issues, ethics, and disturbing nonchalance of the United States' counterterrorism overreach, Stone's film is as focused and clear-headed as they come. If there's one good example to take from the NSA, it's this: Snowden is essential to watch.