‘Snowden” — the cloak-and-dagger tale of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden — unspools like a dramatized version of Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary “CitizenFour.” And with conspiracy-lover Oliver Stone at the helm that might have been enough if he wasn’t so distracted by the inconsequential love story between Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his loyal girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).
While watchable, “Snowden” suffers from too many tedious moments over its grueling 138-minute runtime. Part of the problem is that Stone, who co-wrote the script with Kieran Fitzgerald (the underrated “The Homesman”), goes too broad, covering a decade in Snowden’s life in which the security expert traveled between Washington, Geneva, Tokyo, Hawaii and Hong Kong, where the movie gets under way. It’s June 3, 2013, at the now-infamous Mira Hotel, where Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) set up a camera in Snowden’s cramped room. Typical of Snowden’s paranoia, he confiscates the visitors’ cell phones and places them in a microwave — you know, to scramble their signals.
From there, the movie follows “The Social Network” template by flashing back to 2004, when Snowden is a young, determined special-ops soldier training at Fort Benning. Eventually, he’s granted a medical discharge after breaking a leg. Dejected, he turns to the Central Intelligence Agency to appease his need to serve his country. This time, it’s with his computer skills. To say he’s tech savvy is an understatement. He’s a wizard. Higher-ups instantly recognize his talent, and Snowden is dispatched to far-off lands, where his patriotism begins to unravel under the weight of the government’s Constitution-defying invasion of people’s privacy under the guise of national security. An ethical dilemma develops that follows him to every ensuing assignment.
The topic of covert government surveillance is well within Stone’s wheelhouse, and it’s no surprise he’d want to tackle Snowden’s leaking of thousands of classified documents. Where he goes wrong is in emphasizing Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay in a lame attempt to lure the broader masses. It just doesn’t work, mainly because there’s nothing brewing between Gordon-Levitt (“The Walk”) and Woodley (“The Fault in Our Stars). She’s there for Stone’s camera to ogle, and she’s certainly a beauty.
Gordon-Levitt also has the additional liability of trying to portray a real-life character that is dull, dry, deliberate and paranoid. Snowden is also a hard guy to root for — at least at first. But the deeper down the rabbit hole he goes, the more you appreciate the courage it took for him to do what he did. He’s a game-changer and a walking controversy: Is he a patriot or traitor? Stone unabashedly comes down on the side of the former.
A supporting cast of Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green and Ben Schnetzer prop up the proceedings. Yet, you can’t escape the feeling that the movie could have been something more if Stone really gave it the Oliver Stone no-holds-barred (think “JFK”) treatment. In a movie that details the U.S government’s dirtiest secrets, there’s little thrill and intensity. And the stakes never seem high enough, making “Snowden” a bit of a snow job.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, Ben Schnetzer, Nicolas Cage; Directed by Oliver Stone.
(R for language and some sexuality/nudity.)