Don’t come looking for concrete answers about the guilt or innocence of the CIA and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in the Oliver Stone film “Snowden.” With Stone at the helm, the best one can hope for, and what he provides here, is fodder to make you think about the issues, then come to your own conclusion.
One really important factor to know is that Stone is telling a lot of the story from Snowden’s point of view (he visited him numerous times in Moscow, his home since releasing all sorts of secret information he was privy to in the name of protecting American citizens’ privacy). So the film certainly does lean toward Snowden as hero rather than traitor. But Stone also achieves a degree of balance in that, even without any assistance from the CIA or the NSA in the making of the film, he features the completely reasonable thoughts of people on the government’s side of the fence.
But because it’s a Stone film, it also tends to ramble on a bit, throwing in too many scenes that overstay their welcome, and in a few cases, giving short shrift to characters who, with more of their presence, would have made the film more rewarding.
Covering events that took place between 2004 and 2013, it introduces Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in that later year, already on the run, holed up in Hong Kong, waiting to meet with a couple of reporters (Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson) and a documentary filmmaker (Melissa Leo), hoping they’ll help him “get the word out” about why what he’s done is good for the world.
The story he tells them is shown in flashbacks, first of his time in Special Forces training (which went sour), then, wanting to find another way to serve his country, of his successful interview for a post at the CIA. Though he’s a proud conservative, he has high hopes when he uses an online dating service and meets Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a free-spirited anti-war liberal.
The film gets too bloated with stories and side stories, but no one’s going to complain about the acting. Gordon-Levitt and Woodley are excellent together, both when their characters are relaxed and happy with each other and when the stress of his job, and the fact that he can’t tell her what he actually does, as well as the paranoia the job inflicts upon him, threatens to tear them apart.
“Snowden” also has a couple of spot-on small performances (there’s that short shrift business) from Nicolas Cage as Hank Forrester, a brilliant, straight-talking, frustrated CIA cryptography expert, and by British (usually) comic actor Rhys Ifans as Corbin O’Brian, a fiercely patriotic CIA man who becomes Snowden’s mentor.
The gist of the film is that Snowden turns out to be an extremely talented analyst, first for the CIA and later for the NSA, who accidentally and innocently stumbles upon information that leads him to believe the American government is overstepping its bounds concerning secretly watching and listening to everyone, not just suspected terrorists.
It’s a great story, one that’s well played, but too much of the film’s time is spent hopping back and forth between that one and the less interesting one happening in Hong Kong. The main drama there, which feels awfully forced, tells of the hassles between the reporters’ hot story and their uncertain editor back in London. That part is almost yawn inducing.
But a sequence of total greatness has Snowden in a conference room doing a video call with O’Brian, who’s only on a giant screen in extreme close-up, resulting, thanks to Ifans and to the camera angles, in a few minutes of absolute menace.
Getting back to that hero versus traitor business, Snowden utters the words, “My intention never was to harm the U.S.” But though the script doesn’t blatantly take a side, neither does it shy away from putting him more in a positive than a negative light. Supporters of Snowden and Stone will go for this film. Those on the other side most likely won’t.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone; directed by Oliver Stone
With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans