Tronc Newspapers Critic
When it comes to poking the bear, and to depicting American history as the cyclical wising-up of its idealists, Oliver Stone remains the man with the plan, and the bullet points.
"Snowden" is co-writer and director Stone's latest. It's fairly absorbing though, increasingly, a bit of an eye-roller, and it's designed, photographed and edited to make you itchy with paranoia.
Its goal is simple: It agitates for a society and a government a little less hellbent on omnivorous surveillance. Stone's subject, U.S. intelligence community whiz kid Edward Snowden, became notorious in 2013 when he passed along confidential National Security Agency documents in a Hong Kong hotel room to journalists filing for The Guardian. (The Washington Post also published Snowden-leaked documents.)
The data dump provoked cries of "traitor!" and just as many cries of "hero!" Either way, Snowden succeeded in proving just how much intel on ordinary American citizens the government, with the help of massive telecommunications firms and globally powerful search engines, had been gathering with impunity. The war on terror had, in Snowden's eyes, become a war on civil liberty.
Stone's movie zigzags around several years of Snowden's life, beginning chronologically in 2004, up through the present. The real-life Snowden, still living in Moscow, still looking for a pardon from his former U.S. governmental employers, appears on camera in the closing minutes of "Snowden." Until then the role belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who stays tightly (too tightly, I think) inside the voice of the real Snowden, who has a sleepy, up-all-night, slightly zonked vocal quality. It's familiar to anyone who saw "Citizenfour," Laura Poitras' eerily effective Oscar-winning documentary on the Snowden affair.
For better or worse the romance between Snowden and his amateur-photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley, takes a prominent place in "Snowden," as Snowden's career takes him to Geneva, and Oahu. Written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, based on the books "The Snowden Files" and "Time of the Octopus," the "Snowden" script paints its subject as a patriot whose eyes are gradually opened by co-workers, overseers and Big Brother types, regarding the extent of the governmental surveillance afoot. This presents a tricky challenge. As Stone himself told The New York Times recently, "Coding is not exciting," at least to most of us, in movie terms. Therefore the filmmaker felt the necessity to goose up and intentionally discombobulate his chronology, to keep us alert.
Even so, many, I suspect, will be surprised how conventional and even tame "Snowden" turned out. Why, with so much to be angry about, whatever your take on Snowden's actions, does "Snowden" seem like a compromised good try? This is where pure aesthetics come into play, though of course they're in play in every movie. Stone is temperamentally terrified as a director about boring his audience. The pacing's pretty fleet, yet the rhythm of the movie feels off. As written, Snowden is more conduit for outrage and surveillance factoids than a dimensional, deeply conflicted human being. The music by Craig Armstrong's terrible and hammy. Certain supporting performances, such as Zachary Quinto as Guardian contributor Glenn Greenwald, aren't much better, because the writing is all obstacle and no drama.
And even the best performance, given by Rhys Ifans in the fictional role of Snowden's icy intelligence mentor, comes with asterisks aplenty. In "Snowden" the Ifans character is named O'Brian after the antagonist (spelled "O'Brien," with an "e") in George Orwell's "1984." In Stone's movie Ifans represents the problem, the monolith of deceit and power. His job is to skulk around in an overcoat and a fedora, muttering axioms about the need for security at all costs. Two sentences into his first scene, you know this is a so-called composite character, ginned up and falsified. It's hogwash delivered in style by an interesting actor, akin to Donald Sutherland showing up in Stone's "JFK" to deliver the most undigestible load of exposition in movie history.
"Snowden" harkens to "JFK" and "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Platoon" and other Stone pictures in its depiction of one man's dawning realization of how messed up his government's entanglements have become. (In "JFK," a technically dazzling movie with a seriously blurry script, the answer to the question "Who killed JFK?" was: everyone!) The issues raised, dronelike, and sent hovering over the narrative landscape in "Snowden" will be with us a long, long time. I wish I could say the same for this moderately absorbing film's impact. By the coda, we're squarely in the land of martyred saints and sanctimony, and even though this is Stone's most interesting work since the underrated "W." nearly a decade ago, it's not all that much.
MPAA rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity).
Running time: 2:14