Can you blame Oliver Stone for wanting to take on Edward Snowden? The NSA whistleblower’s story is one of the most compelling public scandals of the past decade — and its high-wire mix of government malfeasance and international intrigue sounds like it was practically invented for a filmmaker who undoubtedly lists “Speaking truth to power” at the very top of his LinkedIn profile.
Stone also wouldn’t seem wrong for casting the earnest, chameleonic actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the starring role, and bolstering him with the solid trio of Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, and Tom Wilkinson as the three journalists who helped bring Snowden’s startling revelations to light. But the movie goes wrong, alas, almost from the moment Gordon-Levitt opens his mouth. Literally: Whatever timbre he’s aiming for — presumably something in the realm of the real Snowden — he sounds almost cartoonishly odd, like a kid doing his rec-room version of Buffalo Bill’s monotone from Silence of the Lambs. And there’s about as much nuance in everything that follows: We learn quickly and clumsily that Snowden is next-level gifted, even among the pointy-headed prodigies of the CIA training program; that the government sometimes does very bad things in the name of security and freedom; and that the performances of Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage are only as good, approximately, as the hairpieces provided for their roles.
What we don’t get enough of, despite the film’s attempts to goose its intricate zeroes-and-ones plot with exotic scene setters in Hong Kong, Hawaii, Geneva, and Tokyo, is a real sense of narrative sweep or urgency. It doesn’t take long for Snowden to realize that his own ideals — life, liberty, etc. — don’t exactly align with the aims of his overlords, or their morally blasé means of achieving them. (The fact that he manages to be promoted to increasingly higher security clearances, despite his clear discomfort with the breaches of protocol and privacy the jobs require, doesn’t speak particularly well of the government’s housekeeping either.) In the meantime, the otherwise-lone-wolfish Edward needs stakes to lose: in this case, it’s a sweet, slightly dippy girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) who is mostly left to stand with her eyebrows knit and her arms crossed while he struggles internally with all the things he knows and can’t share with her without committing a federal crime.
It’s all working inexorably toward the moment when Snowden finally chooses to reveal to the world the full extent of the NSA’s massive overreach, and Stone does his best to turn what is essentially a data dump into high drama. But unless you can’t live without a scene of Woodley teaching strip aerobics or a helpful tutorial on Rubiks cubes, the award-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour already exists — and offers a much more essential, and consistently more affecting version of these same events.
At least two other major studio films this past year have ripped tales of high-level corruption directly from the headlines to great success, though both found their own way of making their retellings resonate; disappointingly, Snowden conjures neither the wildly-styled hijinks of The Big Short or the methodical, unshowy excellence of Spotlight. Instead, it somehow manages to make a fascinating, utterly contemporary narrative feel like old news. C