What’s your take on Edward Snowden: A patriot deserving of a presidential pardon? A traitor deserving of execution, as Trump believes? Something in between? In Snowden the movie, in which a fiercely committed Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the title role, Oliver Stone removes all doubt. He’s Saint Edward, the cyber-nerd who’s living in exile in Russia for the crime (or heroic act) of leaking classified NSA documents that show how Uncle Sam (or Big Brother) is monitoring us, all of us, 24/7. As in Citizenfour, the brilliant documentary from Laura Poitras, Stone’s film is framed with the then-30-year-old former government employee holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room for eight days in June of 2013. It’s there, with Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), that he decides to risk charges of espionage to blow the lid off a vast government conspiracy.
If that sounds like a juicy op for Stone to go apeshit on the evil empire of surveillance, don’t get your hopes up. The director tamps down his wild side to wave the flag for whistleblowing. Nothing wrong with that in theory. In practice, it sucks the life out of a movie that actually tells us less than the Poitras doc did. Stone strands us in biopic territory, which is no place for his rabid gifts as a filmmaker.
The script, co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, ticks off the high points. Snowden getting sidelined in Special Forces training by frail health (he’s also prone to epileptic seizures). Snowden making his bones at the CIA in Virginia, where he meets Hank Forrester (a quietly and wonderfully crazy Nicolas Cage), a contractor who’s been sidelined for speaking truth to power. Snowden impressing intelligence honcho Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who sees the kid’s talent but worries about controlling it. On a room-sized video conference screen, Stone blows up O’Brian’s head so large he looks a big unfriendly giant ready snack on this puny rebel. It’s too much — but Stone’s particular brand of too much, and I only wish there was more of it. The key figure here is Lindsay Mills (a spirited Shailene Woodley), the liberal hottie who will eventually melt down Snowden’s conservative resistance. She’s his conscience, and yes it’s a nagging one that leads to him trying to right the wrongs he’s been party to.
The reliably adventurous Gordon-Levitt seems ready to rock, letting us sense the conflicting principles dueling in Snowden’s head. Disappointingly, Stone reduces an ethical quagmire to one easily digestible question: Is the U.S. justified in spying on its own citizens in the name of national security? Larger, thornier implications are ignored. Yet it’s those implications, the ones that pit transparency against covert geopolitics, that are more worth exploring than biographical sleuthing. Snowden himself agrees. On screen, he says flatly: “I’m not the story.” Tell that to Stone, who sticks to the surface and buries the provocation.