Oliver Stone, Gordon-Levitt come up short in this safe-baked biopic
It’s no question filmmaker Oliver Stone loves his country, but he’s also made a career out of going against the established order. Whether he’s tackling history in films like Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July, or profiling presidents with JFK, Nixon and W., Stone portrays America in his own unique way.
He carries this practice over to his latest project, Snowden. But for a film based on the true story of getting to the bottom of a barrel of lies and exposing the truth, too much is left to be desired.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Edward Snowden, who is infamous for leaking a large quantity of classified National Security Agency documents in 2013. These documents revealed how our government, with the cooperation of major telecom and Internet companies, has been surveilling our electronic communications. Every sent text, email or post on social media is being monitored by the eyes of Uncle Sam, and Snowden made it his mission to reveal this chilling secret to the masses.
The importance of Snowden’s actions is clear. It’s scary to think that you’re being watched at every moment and that your sense of privacy is virtually nonexistent.
It’s just a shame that Stone doesn’t seem to trust his audience enough to understand the film’s big topic, unless he lays it on thick.
As of late, Stone has transformed into the Michael Bay of political thrillers. He often slices into history — making gods out of men and devils out of bureaucrats — in the biggest, most Hollywood way possible.
Stone paints Snowden as one of the best patriots of our time. One scene featuring Snowden with a CIA field agent (Timothy Olyphant) comes to mind, specifically. In the sequence, Snowden helps the operative take down a Pakistani banker.
They get the individual intoxicated and set him up to drive home drunk, only to call it in and get the banker behind bars. Snowden, being the Boy Scout he’s presented as, sees how corrupt this act is. Is this how it happened? It’s too clean and sound to think so.
Stone protects every decision and possible false step Snowden makes with a safety net.
His portrayal lacks the human touch that could have made it admirable. Look at recent biopics such as Selma or The Social Network (a film Snowden borrows from heavily in terms of style). Both films are about significant historical figures, but are handled in a tangible form. Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t sleep around with other women, or maybe Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the biggest jerk on the planet, but these two films give us something to think about and don’t see their subjects as faultless beings.
There are also many scenes that flat out don’t make much sense. One of the most dramatic scenes from the film shows Snowden leaving a high-security workplace with a SD card that contains all the aforementioned files on them. He manages to walk away clean by slipping the card into a Rubik’s Cube like a pro. But how he got the card into the facility in the first place is one of the many inconsistencies in this film’s storytelling. (Watch the far more gripping documentary on Snowden, titled Citizenfour, instead.)
Gordon-Levitt does his best to capture Snowden’s mannerisms and voice, but, like his portrayal of Philippe Petit in The Walk, he pushes himself a little too hard for it to be organic.
The same could be said of his co-star Shailene Woodley (Divergent series), who plays Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills. What could have been a rich part for Woodley winds up being your typical good-looking woman with an edgy and arty side.
It’s also safe to say the sparks between Woodley and Gordon-Levitt flash rather dim.
Stone’s style can be classically beautiful or experimentally savage, sometimes in the same film. Regardless of the material, he swings for the fences. You can add Snowden to his roster of strikeouts.
PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.
Rated R, 134 minutes.