While getting the facts straight is important, it’s not enough to make a film work.
At his best, Oliver Stone directed films that provided audiences with an immersive experience in an unfamiliar world—Platoon (1986) and Wall Street (1987) being two of the finest examples of his art (Stone won an Oscar for directing Platoon, and another in 1989 for Born on the Fourth of July). Unfortunately, in movie terms the 1980s were a long time ago, and Stone’s more recent films have ranged from total misfires (Alexander, 2004) to passable but not great (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, 2010). His most recent film, Snowden, is not as bad as Alexander, but I’m not sure it rises to even the middling heights of Stone’s Wall Street sequel.
The general facts about Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance scandal are well-known, thanks in no small part to Laura Poitras’ 2014 Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour. Snowden, currently hiding out in Russia, has a certain enigmatic charm, with boyish good lucks, and aggressively minimalist style, and obvious brain power that bring to mind chess whiz Bobby Fisher, and there’s probably an interesting fictional film to be made about his life. Snowden is not that film, however—it’s surprisingly dull and too frequently adheres to the uninspired, old-school documentary playbook in which scenes portraying historical events are re-enacted, often with voiceover narration telling you what you are seeing.
Snowden jumps back and forth between 2013, beginning with Snowden’s first meeting with Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in Hong Kong, and scenes from Snowden’s earlier life, beginning with his flunking out of basic training due to a shattered tibia. Cinematic time moves faster in the earlier period, and eventually the two timelines converge. It’s not a bad structure—Stone intends to show us how Snowden’s ideas about national security evolve, taking him from conservative patriot to perhaps the most famous cyber outlaw of his day—but it works less well in practice, in part because the character of Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who does look the part) remains inaccessible throughout.
His body not up to the rigors of a military life, Snowden decides to pursue a career in the CIA, his obvious computer smarts convincing recruiter Corbin O’Brian (a composite figure played by Rhys Ifans) to give him a chance. Snowden is an immediate success at his work, receiving encouragement from both company man O’Brian (whose surname recalls the sinister “O’Brien” in George Orwell’s 1984) and the eccentric Hank Forrester (played hammily by Nicholas Cage; the character may be based on William Binney), who has a thing for old code machines and apparently no duties other than dusting them. Snowden also has a beautiful girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley, doing her best with an absolutely thankless role), who teaches pole dancing, dabbles in photography, and quarrels with Snowden about his total dedication to his job.
No one can accuse Stone of not doing his homework for Snowden—the film draws on several well-regarded books on the case as well as interviews with Snowden himself. But while getting the facts straight is important, it’s not enough to make a film work. The strength of feature films, as opposed to documentaries, is that they can use fictional scenes to illustrate personality traits or exemplify principles. Rather oddly, Stone seldom does this effectively, and for all the time we spend with Snowden, we know little more about his character at the end of the film than we did at the start, and we don’t know much about any of the other characters either. Stone’s penchant for using music to heavy-handedly cue the emotional import of scenes quickly becomes annoying, and only near the very end, when Snowden’s cover is blown, does the film create the kind of immersive environment that reminds you why Stone’s best films are great. Unfortunately, those scenes are a long time in coming, and Snowden pales before Poitras’ far more interesting treatment of the same story. | Sarah Boslaugh