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Some stories are too compelling in reality to avoid telling in a Hollywood film. Last weekend, Clint Eastwood attempted this with Sully, to mixed results, which we elaborate on in our review. Joseph Gordon-Levitt himself tried this last year in Robert Zemeckis‘s The Walk, which was a biographical film about French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s titular walk between the two World Trade Center towers. However, The Walk already had a superior documentary on which it was based, titled Man On Wire. This precedent unfortunately continues with Oliver Stone‘s Snowden.
In 2014, a documentary by Laura Poitras titled Citizenfour told the same story we see in Snowden. The film thoroughly covers the current climate of monitoring programs conducted by the U.S. government. It also shows Laura’s many meetings with Edward Snowden (or Ed, as he prefers) himself as he prepares to leak inside information regarding the U.S. government’s wiretapping practices to the general public. Citizenfour is as fascinating, riveting, and stressful a documentary that you’ll ever see. This doesn’t seem to translate in Oliver Stone’s dramatization of this real life tale.
I’m not intentionally discounting the clout of Snowden. There’s enough in the movie’s subject matter alone to inspire deep conversations regarding surveillance. Additionally, you’ll see a ridiculously engaging and powerhouse performance from Shailene Woodley as Edward’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. In the film, Lindsay is understandably frustrated by Ed’s constant secrecy, and you feel every ounce of that culminated in a very raw, passionate argument the couple has when living in Japan.
Gordon-Levitt as the titular character certainly holds his own also. Once you move past his Philip Seymour Hoffman-esque voice, you notice the nuances in Joseph’s performance. You find in there a man truly at odds with his own principles, the more he discovers. Early in the film, Ed’s a firmly-planted patriot, who paints those who criticize their country’s government with the brush of a traitor. His outlook obviously shifts as the movie progresses, and that inner struggle is noticeable and appreciated in Gordon-Levitt’s execution.
The pacing is the ultimate enemy of this feature. Much like Sully, Snowden revolves around one very specific, very important moment in a man’s life. What you see in the picture up until that climactic moment occasionally feels like filler. Of course we want to see what motivated Edward to leak classified documents, but when they don’t sufficiently explain the technology behind these controversial programs, the audience can be left scratching their heads and anxious for the finale.
Furthermore, if you’re familiar with Oliver Stone’s previous work, he tends to make his own position on a topic influence the message his films provide. Snowden is no exception. There are seldom lines of dialogue that show you the other side of the debate: the pro-surveillance side. The lack of such dialogue and the obvious bias eliminates a lot of the tension or conflict purely from a storytelling perspective. Rhys Ifans portrays Ed’s occasionally-unsettling mentor, Corbin O’Brian, and does utter “secrecy equals security” at one point, but one conversation in a 2 hour and 20 minute movie isn’t adequate.
Speaking of the supporting actors, Zachary Quinto as Glenn Greenwald is the epitome of perfect biographical casting. Greenwald is a very passionate and eloquent journalist in reality, and Quinto conveys those traits in full. Moreover, you have Nicolas Cage in this picture briefly. Seriously, Nicolas Cage. Sure, he’s not The Wicker Man over-the-top, but there are moments where his unnatural acting removes you from the reality of a scene. However, like I mentioned, it’s a role that didn’t overstay its welcome.
Oliver Stone’s latest dive into controversial waters is a rather pedestrian outing. There are flashes of original cinematography and clever writing that you just don’t receive enough of. While the relatable relationship between Ed and Lindsay surprisingly anchor Snowden‘s emotional gravitas, I wish the focus were on bettering the technobabble and defining the conflict for all audiences to comprehend. Removing my personal bias and interest for this subject matter, I’m having trouble recommending this as a movie-going experience for everyone. If you take away one thing from this review though, it’s “see Citizenfour.”
Need a really, really brief yet comical synopsis of this review? Check out my 10 Second Review of Snowden, coupled with the new Blair Witch, below!