Alternately involving and monotonous, "Snowden" acts as both a clearly biased biopic of U.S. government whistleblower Edward Snowden and a fictionalized telling of Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning 2014 documentary "Citizenfour." At one time an adventurous filmmaker with an anarchic auteur spirit, Oliver Stone (2012's "Savages
") has in recent years become less distinctive, his films feeling as if they could have been made by just about anyone. His direction here is competent but unexceptional, aptly matching the quality of his and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald's (2014's "The Homesman") by-the-numbers screenplay, based on the books "The Snowden Files" by Luke Harding and "The Time of the Octopus" by Anatoly Kucherena.
A former private contractor for the CIA and NSA, 29-year-old computer hacker Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has become privy to, and increasingly outraged by, the United States government's methods of tracking and spying on unsuspecting, by and large innocent, citizens. Loading thousands of private NSA documents onto an SD card, Snowden has agreed to meet documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and The Guardian
columnist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), sitting down with them in a Hong King hotel room for a week-long, video-recorded interview. He realizes the criminal ramifications of leaking classified information about the U.S.'s private surveillance of millions of Americans and their unauthorized tapping of eight major Internet firms, but going public with these revelations is a risk he is willing to take.
Interspersing Poitras and Greenwald's 2013 on-camera interview with Snowden with the events leading up to this key disclosure, the picture spans nine years in Snowden's adult life, from his failed attempt to join the Army in 2004, to his globe-spanning experiences working for the CIA and NSA in Washington, D.C., Switzerland, Japan and Hawaii, to his rocky long-term relationship with liberal amateur photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). The more Snowden learns of the National Security Agency's surveillance strategies and reckless use of drones on foreign nations, the more paranoid and disenfranchised he becomes. In a world lorded over by technology and social media, almost nothing stays private. It's a truth Lindsay claims not to mind"I'm not hiding anything," she saysbut one Snowden cannot bear to accept.
"Snowden" may conclude with an end-credits montage of news reports and politicians (including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders) casting a critical eye on the danger Edward Snowden put the country in by unlawfully releasing classified material to the public, but this comes as an afterthought in a talky, 134-minute dramatic thriller that casts its title figure in a plainly self-important light. Director Oliver Stone sees him as a hero of the people, a man who stands up against the government, sacrificing his freedom for what he believes to be right. Unfortunately, the film does not bother to confront exactly how this newfound knowledge will help citizens or what he hopes to prove beyond being the one who gets bragging rights for being the first person to inform everyone their lives aren't private, national security violations and accusations of espionage and theft be damned.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2015's "The Walk
") commits himself to the challenge of capturing the real Edward Snowden's vocal tone and arch mannerisms, and he does it exceptionally well. As a protagonist, though, this isn't the most sympathetic of characters; he is reserved, emotionally chilly and self-serving almost to a fault. Despite claims he is leaking information so others will be informed, his actions and demeanor tell a different story. This is his world, and everyone else simply happens to be living in it. As the patient yet understandably questioning Lindsay, Shailene Woodley (2016's "Allegiant
") breaks free from her sometimes appallingly artificial wig to make the most of a fairly standard girlfriend role. Woodley finds the truth in Lindsay's predicament, uprooting herself time and again to support Edward even as she is kept in the dark about his work. All other actors are gravely underutilized, most notably Melissa Leo (2013's "Prisoners
") and Zachary Quinto (2016's "Star Trek Beyond
") as Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, Tom Wilkinson (2016's "The Choice
") as The Guardian
's Defense and Intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill, and Nicolas Cage (2015's "Pay the Ghost
") as CIA training center counselor Hank Forrester.
"Snowden" moves back and forth through time but, save for one tense set-piece where Edward covertly attempts to make off with an SD card of restricted information he has hidden in a Rubik's cube, rarely strays from a flat, conventional narrative path. Several times throughout, longing memories of Michael Mann's underappreciated 2015 cyber-suspenser "Blackhat
" drifted to minda significantly more dynamic and visually exciting film touching upon similar themes. For viewers not terribly familiar with Snowden or "Citizenfour," the picture will prove informative but one-sided, the potential negative consequences of what this young man did treated as afterthoughts while the closing credits roll. This subject calls for a fairer-balanced treatment that weighs and considers all angles rather than serves to stroke Snowden's ego. Alas, this latter point is by and large what Oliver Stone does, going so far as to allow Snowden himself to take over the role in the final moments. The last shot, observing him looking off bravely and triumphantly in profile, is self-aggrandizing in the most shameless way imaginable. With "Snowden," the hard-hitting, frequently lacerating director behind "Platoon," "JFK," "Natural Born Killers" and "U-Turn" is barely distinguishable.