Rated R (2:14)
“Snowden,” Oliver Stone’s biopic about the world’s most famous National Security Agency whistle-blower, certainly deals with an urgent and important issue: state surveillance, and how far is too far for the government to go.
Edward Snowden’s personal story — a hero to some, turncoat to others — is as compelling as they come, too. It’s not every day that a high school dropout turned wannabe Army grunt becomes a CIA/NSA operative who leaks sensitive files and then flees the country, ending up in Russia.
All of which makes “Snowden” an intriguing and enlightening disappointment.
More hagiography than biography, Stone’s film portrays Snowden as a candidate for sainthood whose only flaw is that he cares too much. When combined with an uncharacteristic filmmaking restraint, the result is a well-made and well-acted, but ultimately overly long (134 minutes) and stifling, film that is not nearly as incendiary or convincing as it could have been.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden, whom we first meet in June 2013. That’s when he furtively met in a Hong Kong hotel with journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). It’s here, along with Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), that they go public with the information Snowden smuggled out of his last NSA post in Hawaii.
From there, Snowden’s adult life is told through a series of flashbacks. A political conservative with a fondness for Ayn Rand, he’s discharged from the Army after injuring his legs during training. He then decides to serve his country in other ways, becoming an agent with a specialty in information security, a field at which he proved especially adept.
It also helped that he became chummy with one of his superiors, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), and one of the pioneering old-timers, Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), who has been shuffled off to a department that no one cares about.
Through them, as well as fellow security agent Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer), who shows him the ropes, he realizes just how far-reaching the American government’s surveillance is, not only spying on potential terrorists and troublemakers but also friendly foreign governments, foreign citizens and American citizens of all stripes.
Now he has a quandary: Does he maintain his comfortable life with a high-paying job and loving girlfriend (Shailene Woodley), or does he spill what he knows, imperiling his freedom and maybe even his life?
Anyone who has turned on the news in the past three years knows how it turned out. But if many of those newscasts might have been missing context and shades of gray about his decision, “Snowden” doesn’t offer much either.
Stone, who wrote the script, along with Kieran Fitzgerald, and based it on the novel “Time of the Octopus” by Anatoly Kucherena and Luke Harding’s nonfiction “The Snowden Files,” doesn’t portray any criticism of Snowden or his decision. He fails to deal with what the Russians or others might have gotten from him. And he ignores what Snowden’s life is like now in Russia.
That’s capped off by the coda during the credits when the real Snowden is shown speaking as if he’s a candidate to be the next face on Mount Rushmore. A more nuanced view might have actually helped bolster Stone’s case.
Viewers who want to know more about Snowden and the events in Hong Kong that led to the publication of his information are better off hunting down Poitras’ riveting 2014 documentary, “Citizenfour.”
Still, the cast is uniformly excellent, with Gordon-Levitt — who doesn’t really look like Snowden — completely becoming him in manner and voice. And there are moments when Stone’s visual sense is as vital as ever.
While that’s not enough to make “Snowden” more than a well-crafted curiosity, if it reinvigorates discussion of the issues of probing and privacy, it will have at least served Stone’s purpose.