Well it’s official. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has starred in not one, but two inferior films based on far superior documentaries. Last year it was Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, based on the gripping 2008 documentary Man on Wire. But while I never really expected much out of that film, I was left somewhat disappointed by Snowden, which is based to an extent on the 2014 documentary Citizenfour, not only because it’s one of the most important stories of our time, but also because it’s directed by Oliver Stone, a filmmaker who has made a career out of telling stories about conspiracies and the abuse of power by the government.
For those who still don’t know who Edward Snowden was, he was an NSA hacker and contractor who blew the whistle on the U.S government and the NSA after finding out a virtual mountain of data was being assembled to track all forms of digital communication — not just from foreign governments and terrorist groups, but from ordinary Americans. When Snowden decided to leak this classified information, he became a traitor to some, a hero to others and a fugitive from the law.
The Oliver Stone of the 80’s and 90’s was a truly a filmmaker to be reckoned with. And his raw political voice changed the landscape of American cinema forever. Since the 2000’s though, he’s been seriously off his game. Snowden is definitely an improvement over his work from the last decade, but it still isn’t even close to the level of some of his best work.
The strangest choice on Stone’s part is to tell the Edward Snowden story completely straight, like a conventional biopic, with traditional framing devices and a filler of a love story, which results in making the film feel like a big-screen Wikipedia page, rather than a a proper examination of Snowden’s character. And rather than letting the audience decide whether Snowden was a hero or a traitor, the film goes a little overboard with humanizing his character. Something that was clearly Stone’s stance.
But that said, I do think there is a fair bit to like about this movie. I think Stone succeeds to a degree at telling the story of a young idealist who gradually grows alienated and learns some harsh truths about the system he once so blindly trusted. I thought all that was somewhat reminiscent to Born on the Fourth of July. And I think he gets the practical side of the the mass government surveillance as seen through the eyes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden dead right, in a way that’s easy to understand for the viewer.
The performances are mostly good aswell. Levitt truly embodies Snowden the way few actors could have, right up to the accent. And then you have Zachary Quinto and Rhys Ifans as well, who are superb despite having a handful of scenes in the film. Even Nicolas Cage is pretty good in a cameo appearance. If there’s anyone that feels wasted though, it’s Shailene Woodley, the latest actress to be stuck in the dreaded girlfriend role.
Altogether, Snowden is not a bad movie, but rather a middling and mediocre one that could have been far better considering the story and the pedigree involved. When you boil it all down, I suppose the core problem with the film is that it just doesn’t have any sense of urgency and tends to get quite boring. And when you see biopics like Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs breaking the conventional biopic mold, it’s disappointing to see a biopic so standard and by-the-numbers.