Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans
Director: Oliver Stone
Running Time: 134 mins
Synopsis: Retelling the events surrounding a young NSA analyst Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) and his stealing of important data outlining the US Government’s use of hacking the public’s email, phones and even webcams, all in the name of security.
Oliver Stone, once Hollywood’s go to political Agent Provocateur, has slipped into a bit of a bad patch to say the least. A surprisingly limp-wristed account of George W Bush in W, a melodramatic and rather flat 9/11 tribute in World Trade Center, and the less said about Savages the better. It seemed like the fire had gone from this political conspiracist. Into this film wasteland steps a story of huge ramifications, one that has had far reaching consequences around privacy over security, and governmental oversight, a k a Oliver Stone’s wheelhouse. Unfortunately he is only half successful.
Oddly framed around the filming of Laura Poitras’s regular interviews with Snowden as he prepares to reveal all, which were released as the terrific documentary Citizenfour. Laura, played by a wasted Melissa Leo, and a Guardian journalist looking very much like Spock from Star Trek, as they attempt to satisfy Edward’s paranoid concerns to get to his info. It is a strange way of book-ending the film, offering little in the way of tension as we all know the outcome of this situation. The inclusion of such talents as Quinto, Leo and later on Tom Wilkinson, only highlights the thin nature of these scenes, only really existing to stress the gravity of Snowden’s plight.
Flashing back to Snowden’s time in the US Army, we see the fragments of a man committed to serving his country. Not in the usual OTT patriotism that has been prevalent in some of Stone’s work but in a quiet understated drive to do something noble for his country. Gordon-Levitt is mightily effective as Snowden, albeit he is once you get over the oddly accented and unusual delivery of his lines (it is incredibly uncanny, even though he does slip in and out of the accent at times), showing the conflict that rises within upon learning what his ‘Great’ country has been doing. Edward is a tough character to play, as the man himself is very much an opaque enigma, revealing very little about his real motivations beyond just doing the right thing. The film also portrays him as simply a man of high moral values and struggles in its script to really tap into the internal battle of valuing country over what is right. Although Snowden may have very well not felt this inner conflict, and interviews with him make it clear that there was no real choice for him, but that makes for little character drama. Stone wisely lets Gordon-Levitt do the heavy lifting and gives some much needed colour to the man.
Others around Gordon-Levitt are somewhat less successful. Shailene Woodley is saddled with some pretty naff material as Snowden’s girlfriend, of which this film devotes far too much time to their relationship. Instead of drilling into the real meat of the political themes this film should dig up, we are subject to repeated scenes of domestic squabbling and on the nose moments such as a night of passion being marred by Snowden’s fear that his webcam is capturing it all by some unseen NSA stooge. Still Woodley is at least acting in the same film. Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage, however, are under the impression that this is a cheesy movie of the week. Ifans oozes Bond-villain like menace but when you’re meant to be portraying a CIA bigwig and offering up serious questions around an important subject less moustache twirling would be helpful. Plus the guy really needs to back away from the webcam, a giant Ifans face on the screen is just uncomfortable. Cage is likewise acting for something else entirely. His role is brief but a last act moment of him commentating on the news of Snowden’s leak actually contains the phrase “he actually did it, he really did it,” if he stood up and saluted him it would not be out of place.
Oliver Stone does keep the film moving at a brisk pace, and constructs some palpable scenes of almost spy-movie like tension. The central hack scene is clammy with sweat-beads, near misses and data files that always upload just in the nick of time, it is almost on the verge of being cheesy if not for the fact that it actually happened. Stone saves his biggest trick for last though, when the real life Snowden is seamlessly cut into a final interview (it also proves how uncanny Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal is as it takes you a moment to notice that it is no longer him) and it ends the film on an almost sombre note. Upon being asked if he has any regrets Snowden says not but wears the look of a man weighted down by the notion of never seeing his country again. For this deep rooted and committed patriot it is the price he must pay for standing up for morals he believed said country championed. It is a richly thematic idea that I wished Stone honed in on more throughout. In fact Stone plays it a little too safe, there is no dark side to Snowden shown, no rage filled diatribes against the overwatch system, no true fire. He relies on the story itself to try and muster the flames when he needed to bring a little to the party. The Agent Provocateur could be said to be back as this is Stone’s strongest outing since the 90s, but he is still just a little bit neutered.
Verdict: A brilliant Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance and a vital story paper over a somewhat haphazard Oliver Stone joint. It never truly delves into the heavier themes but as a introduction to one of the 21st Century’s biggest stories you can do worse.