Even though Edward Snowden already got his best possible movie in Laura Poitras’ tense documentary ‘Citizenfour‘, that doesn’t count in Hollywood terms. Unless it’s a bio-pic with a celebrity impersonation, the studio system hasn’t done its job. So now we have the appropriately titled ‘Snowden’, in which none other than Oliver Stone strives to make audiences paranoid about government surveillance.
Naturally, a great deal of paranoid ranting is to be expected, along with a surprising amount of stylistic restraint (well, by Stone’s standards, not by most movie standards). It’s perfectly fine given that the Snowden story is so strong and relevant, but this thing didn’t exactly need to exist.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the quiet guy with the loud secrets. Amusingly, Stone acknowledges the far superior film that preceded this one by having Melissa Leo play Laura Poitras and Zachary Quinto as Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald interviewing Snowden a la ‘Citizenfour’ as a wraparound narrative. The bulk of the feature plays as flashback. Jo-Go’s version of Snowden kicks off with a failed attempt at joining the military, followed by admittance into the CIA via his sweet, sweet nerdy computer skills. He’s trained to be paranoid about the system by a jittery teacher version of Nicolas Cage and slowly weaned into the CIA by the clearly evil Rhys Ifans. He also falls deeply in love with Shailene Woodley, who is a photographer and loves Eddie Snowdie and has no further personality beyond that. From there, ES goes through various CIA surveillance jobs with various levels of public invasiveness until he finally has too much, decides to speak out, and the timelines catch up with each other.
On a certain level, this is all essentially bio-pic 101 on material. The movie makes all sorts of awkward revelations that give way-too-obvious hints toward the future, and guilt trips are laid on thick. It’s tough to say how true this is to the actual events. More than likely, Stone and his co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald exaggerated and invented to make the movie play more like a spy/techno thriller. The thing is, that genre stuff kind of helps. There’s some nice paranoid tension throughout that’s entirely appropriate. As you’d expect, Stone lets no opportunity for a set-piece slip by, even doing one of those “visualizing the internet” boop-boop-beep-beep lightshows that have been overplayed since some point in the 1990s.
The big issue here is that the story has already been told multiple times recently and with far more success. (In several cases, we even see those versions in this movie, as a tip of the hat and/or sigh of defeat.) Oddly, Oliver Stone doesn’t have any sort of crackpot theory to add. He just plays it straight. It works, but never feels particularly special or necessary. However, the film is still stylish, slick, tense, and well-acted (even though Levitt’s vocal impression of Snowden is jarring, perhaps even digitally manipulated). This is no new ‘Social Network’, as I’m sure the studio was hoping for, but is still likely the best fictionalized version of the Edward Snowden story possible. That’ll do.