Oliver Stone has not been relevant for some time. The three time Oscar winner owned the 80’s. Salvador, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Talk Radio and Wall Street were some of the best the decade had to offer and cemented his name in film history. But by 1997’s U-Turn., Stone had lost his magic. His next few films, Any Given Sunday, World Trade Center, Alexander and W. were critical bombs where overlong running times seemed to only further pat the directors own back with self-indulgence. And his last two films, Savage and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps were hardly anchors in what will eventually be a career DVD boxset.
Yet, when word began circulating that Stone was circling Snowden as his next film, many couldn’t think of a director who would be better for the job. Based on the true events of former NSA/CIA employee Edward Snowden who became the center of equal praise and angst when he leaked thousands of classified documents to the press detailing the illegal surveillance tactics of the agencies, Stone attempts to tell the story of how Snowden eventually came to the crossroads in his life that lead him to be labelled as one of the biggest traitors in US history.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden and his voice and mannerisms seem to capture the real life character to a tee. Stone based the biopic espionage thriller on books by Luke Harding and Anatoly Kucherena and switches back and forth in time between his revealing interview with Guardian reporters in 2013 to Snowden’s attempts to join the military which was thwarted due to a degenerative leg injury. Snowden quickly goes from the hospital bed to the CIA and uses his cockiness and his innate ability to write code and interpret data.
Under the wing of protégé Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), Snowden quickly gets fast tracked through the ranks and travels the world in efforts of National Security. Along the way, Snowdwn meets Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) who will become his female companion traveling the globe to stand by her man even as she is kept in the dark as to exactly the job description to which Snowden is fulfilling.
The film’s pulse pounding moment comes when Snowden attempts to copy and extract from the secure intelligence facility, the files that when published showed to the world how surveillance works outside the confines of both US and International Law for benefits that could never be accounted. Even with the result never in doubt, Stone is able to lay the groundwork for some tense moments leading to Snowden’s escape.
This marks the second film in as many years where actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a real life character following his role as Phillippe Petit in Robert Zemeckis’ under-appreciated The Walk. But this also marks the second time Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a real life character in movie that is inferior to the documentaries that threw both stories into the spotlight. Both Man on a Wire and last year’s Oscar winner for documentary best picture, Citizenfour, were superior films than their dramatized big budget adaptations.
Yet neither is the fault of the young former 3rd Rock from the Sun actor. Snowden collapses on the shoulders of director Stone who doesn’t seem to care how long his films run on. Snowden clocks in at 134 minutes and it feels every bit as long as the time suggests. Watching Snowden switch from job to job/country to country is downright hard on the tushy as it is neither interesting enough to keep audiences on the edge of the seats nor important enough to keep us comfortable in the effort. Instead, the film runs out of gas long before Snowden finally determines that the information to which he is responsible must be revealed for the world to judge on merit.
It is an opportunity lost. Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour was far superior and clearer in its description of the facts. Stone’s Snowden seems muddled in the director’s inability to cut entire scenes in the editing room.
And while most of the cast does a comparable job with little to actually do (including Melissa Leo, Zachery Quinto and Tom Wilkinson), Ifans and a role given to straight-to-video artist Nicholas Cage seem miscast. Woodley is good as the love interest and life partner, but is overused and we can’t but think her continued screen time was Stone’s attempt at giving the female audience members something in which to relate.
So Snowden doesn’t exactly make Oliver Stone relevant again. Nor do we think the film will ignite another firestorm over the merits of Snowden’s efforts. Instead, it is a mildly interesting film that bores audiences lulling them into a hopeless want for the dates on the screen to catch up with real time.