Is Edward Snowden a patriot or traitor? Ever since the former CIA employee managed to disclose thousands of intelligence files in 2013, he’s remained a controversial figure; to some, he’s endangered national security in the US and elsewhere, while to others, he’s justifiably brought the mass surveillance of billions of citizens to the world’s attention.
Director Oliver Stone makes no secret of which side of the argument he comes down on, and Snowden depicts its subject as a kind of modern folk hero: a whistleblower willing to sacrifice his comfortable lifestyle and even his safety to hold the US government to account. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the perfect choice to play Snowden: initially a 20-something who’s invalided out of the army after injuring his legs and displays an extraordinary talent for programming when he joins the CIA. Gordon-Levitt portrays Snowden as a shy, likeable character; sometimes distant towards his girlfriend, photographer Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) but increasingly assailed by guilt and paranoia as he realises the extent of his employers’ reach.
Stone’s movie shifts back and forth in time, from 2013, when Snowden first meets filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in a Hong Kong hotel with his leaked data, to the earlier life events that would eventually turn Snowden against his employer.
Like so many of Stone’s movies, most obviously Wall Street, Snowden sees its protagonist influenced by two father figures: on one side, there’s Rhys Ifans’ Corbin O’Brian, a high-ranking CIA boss who argues that any and all surveillance measures are necessary to prevent terrorist attacks. On the other, there’s Nicolas Cage’s likeably scruffy Hank Forrester, a computer scientist and teacher with a more restrained approach to gathering global data. You can probably guess which figure Snowden eventually sides with.
Like Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko, O’Brian is a plainly villainous character from the off, and becomes increasingly sinister as the movie goes on; it’s in Gordon-Levitt’s scenes with Ifans that Stone’s approach, which is seldom subtle, becomes rather too cartoonish for its own good: one sequence in particular, in which O’Brian’s face dominates Snowden on a gigantic video screen, looks like George Orwell by way of Austin Powers.
When Stone isn’t being heavy-handed, his direction feels strangely tentative. There’s none of the passionate tone or urgency which made such films as Salvador and Platoon so striking and unforgettable, and there are long, languid stretches where Snowden feels more like a made-for-TV mini-series. A strong central performance from Gordon-Levitt aside, some of the bit-players are less convincing; Melissa Leo looks ill at ease in dark contact lenses and raven-black hair as Poitras, and Tom Wilkinson barely figures in his handful of scenes as another Guardian journalist.
As a potted history of a significant figure in modern history, Snowden’s informative enough, though I’d argue that Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour, is told with greater depth and urgency. And if you’re looking for the themes of state control and the dangers of surveillance in a popcorn movie context, you really can’t get much better than Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Stone’s over-earnestness also results in some accidental comedy; as well as the giant Rhys Ifans head mentioned above, there’s an odd scene where Snowden’s face is shown on a remote-controlled screen which totters about on a stage next to the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, and an end-credits song by Peter Gabriel which sounds like the theme tune from Airwolf.
Despite all this, Snowden’s far from a terrible movie. There are moments where glimmers of Stone’s filmmaking talents still shine through, especially in the tense sequence where we see how Snowden escaped with all that data. Ranking as a lesser Stone film as it does, Snowden’s worth seeing as a snapshot of a topic which concerns just about all of us. Computers and smart devices have become so ubiquitous, they’re almost invisible.
It’s easy to forget just how much of our private lives, from our purchases to our locations to our conversations with loved ones, is disclosed on the web. Snowden’s a reminder of how we’ve come to surrender that information over the past decade or so, and how, whether we’re bothered by it or not, our governments are invading our privacy in the name of combating terrorism. Edward Snowden may have brought that issue to the fore, but the debate about safety and state intrusion is certain to rage for decades to come.
Snowden screened at the London Film Festival. A wide UK release hasn’t yet been announced.