Folks, Oliver Stone is back. “Snowden” is not only the filmmaker’s best work in some time, it manages to do something fairly difficult. It maintains Stone’s righteous indignation and love of conspiracy while still focusing solely on telling a compelling story. Stone isn’t preaching to the choir or yelling on a soapbox, but merely delivering an effective biopic. Edward Snowden is undeniably a controversial figure, and the film doesn’t shy away from that, but it’s clear where the allegiances lie. This is an entertaining and important biopic that works regardless of political views, which is something that hasn’t been said about a Stone flick in a while.
“Snowden” benefits greatly from a terrific lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the titular role. He’s dedicated to the part and slips into it very effectively. From the first moment, he is Edward Snowden. The film would have been torpedoed from the start without the right actor in place. Luckily for Stone, Gordon-Levitt is that actor. Between JGL and Stone’s handle on the material, this biopic is coming from a steady place. Some flaws in the script keep it from being an absolutely top tier movie, but that’s only a minor issue. The end result is still a damn good flick and one that’s worthy of some Oscar consideration.
Plot-wise, the movie mostly follows the standard formula for doing a biopic. Through the framing device of Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) meeting with filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), along with journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), we hear his story. His service in the military is depicted, which was cut short by injury. That turn forced him to move towards the CIA and its intelligence wing. There, he meets model Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). At the same time, his computer savvy is noticed by agency men Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) and Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage). Both men have different views of where the world is going, causing an initial conflict for Ed.
His talents set him up to be utilized by the government not just as a computer nerd, but as a surveillance expert. When the reach of these programs becomes known to him, he’s initially conflicted. In particular, meeting programmer Gabriel Sol (Ben Schnetzer) opens his eyes. That meeting is a glimpse into how nonchalantly privacy is being invaded in the name of freedom. Eventually, that turns into anger and a determination to inform the world. Then, the stuff Snowden is known for actually begins. Snowden will blow the whistle on programs like PRISM and XKeyscore, becoming a hero to some and a traitor to others. Stone and company clearly lean in the direction of the former, though folks who don’t see him as a patriot won’t be talked down to either. It all ends in a rather fantastic conclusion which asks some important questions.
As mentioned above, the film succeeds at least in part due to how good Gordon-Levitt is here. He’s given the best material, for sure, but Gordon-Levitt is at the top of his game. You quickly stop seeing him or the real life Snowden, but just this cinematic version. His performance is believable, complex and always compelling. In fact, it’s one of his best to date. Woodley also does very solid work, but in her case she’s elevating a fairly rote part. Woodley is given the stock concerned girlfriend role, so it’s to her credit that she sells the character. They display solid chemistry together, so at least when it comes to romance, “Snowden” gets it right. There’s just a clear gap in which character the script cares more about.
The other supporting players are hit or miss. Leo, Quinto and Wilkinson are solid but unspectacular in their roles. Part of what limits them is that they’re basically in a backdoor remake of “Citizenfour.” They’re fine, but nothing to write home about. Cage, Ifans and Timothy Olyphant have broad roles that they occasionally chew the scenery with, though Cage and Ifans are effective. Ben Schnetzer probably fares the best of this bunch, though he’s limited by the amount of screen time he receives. Also on hand are the likes of Ben Chaplin, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Joely Richardson, Keith Stanfield and more. Still, this is Gordon-Levitt’s show.
Co-writer/director Stone has been in a prolonged funk, but this subject matter clearly inspired him. His direction exhibits both restraint and style, which has been a rare sight these days. Working with DP Anthony Dod Mantle clearly makes a difference, as the look of “Snowden” is very smooth. Mantle’s cinematography isn’t overtly flashy, but it helps ramp up the tension at times. The script he co-wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald is more of a mixed bag, but it works more than it doesn’t. Fitzgerald and Stone fall victim once or twice to lecturing, but for the most part they avoid that trap. If there’s a flaw, it’s in the other characters not being as compelling as Snowden is. That being said, they make their title character one you want to spend over two hours with, and that’s no small achievement.
Though not on the level of Stone’s very best work, “Snowden” is still incredibly well done and extremely entertaining. If you’re a fan of Gordon-Levitt, this is an excellent showcase for him. If you’re fascinated about the real life figure, this gives you an interesting look at what might have spurred him to do what he did. Hell, if you somehow wanted a narrative remake of “Citizenfour,” you have a bit of that here as well. This is a successful biopic that manages to depict a controversial modern figure in a way that transcends politics. You don’t have to agree with Stone or Snowden to enjoy the film, and that’s important. No matter your political bent, “Snowden” works.