“Snowden” opens with the caveat that this is a “dramatization” of events that happened between 2004 and 2013. It’s an important message to keep in mind as Oliver Stone’s biopic of the notorious whistleblower eventually blurs the line between documentary and fiction. If Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” was the technical, unflinching, nonfiction version of Edward Snowden’s explosive NSA leaks, Stone’s film is most definitely the Hollywood version. But perhaps this is the one that might resonate the most with the public at large.
“Snowden” follows the life of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), from upstart soldier in 2004, through his training and career in the CIA, and later as a contractor for the NSA, after CIA field work proved to be too intense for the brilliant, reserved young man with deeply held beliefs about morality and patriotism. His life story is intercut with Snowden’s June 2013 liaison in a Hong Kong hotel with journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian representative Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson).
One thing is clear with Stone’s film – which he directed and co-wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald, adapted from the books “The Snowden Files” by Luke Harding and “The Time of the Octopus” by Anatoly Kucherena – and that’s that he regards Snowden with a decidedly uncritical eye. The billboards for the film might read, “soldier, traitor, spy, hero, hacker, patriot,” but in this film, Stone only regards Snowden as a soldier, hero and patriot. The argument it makes is a compelling one, but the lack of perspective is limiting. There’s no real debate about Snowden’s actions, which are presented as the only moral, if illegal, course of action.
Stone adapts the Snowden tale to a Hollywood narrative – a principled outsider, tormented by his obligations to his job, who gives it all up for his personal beliefs and his relationship. Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), is as much of a motivating factor for him as his belief in a government that should serve the people with transparency and open debate. While it’s nice to see Mills given a strong storyline with motivations and dreams of her own, Stone and Fitzgerald use the love story as the emotional engine of the plot that pushes Snowden into action.
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Stone also massages what could have been a banal plot point to thematically and aesthetically fit the thriller into which he’s shaped “Snowden” – the exfiltration of the classified NSA documents. Snowden races against the clock surrounded by watchful eyes in a fishbowl office in a massive underground World War II military facility in Hawaii, copying files onto a micro-SD card, which he then secrets past security underneath the tile of a Rubik’s cube. It’s a sequence that betrays Stone’s hand in Hollywoodizing this story.
Where Stone’s dramatizing succeeds is in the depiction of the dirty secrets of mass government surveillance. Ben Schnetzer plays the floppy-haired young NSA analyst who cavalierly instructs Snowden in the details and loose justifications for the intimate spying on just about anyone, and the result is as chilling as any of the revelations in “Citizenfour,” if not more so.
In fact, the careful illustration of this surveillance – including the intentional bypass of the justice system, as well as its past and present political implications – just might be so horrifying that it spurs the debate Snowden hoped to ignite with his revelations.
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, Ben Schnetzer, Nicolas Cage
Director: Oliver Stone
Rated R (language and some sexuality/nudity)