Snowden isn’t prime Oliver Stone, but it is an assured piece of filming from one of the great American directors. It’s a film that fails because of the story, not its execution. Stone has always liked to provoke and upset the status quo and therefore Edward Snowden is the perfect subject for him to tackle. Nobody has polarised people in recent years quite like Snowden, with many believing he’s a US traitor, while others regard him as a hero. Stone’s liberal leanings firmly put him in the latter category and the film paints him as such.
When we first meet Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) he’s already unveiling his story to reporters (Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson and Melissa Leo). We then flashback, but Stone doesn’t dwell on too much of Snowden’s past, touching on his military career before throwing him into a world of hi-tech espionage under the watchful eye of Rhys Ifans’ intelligence chief. He’s dotted around the globe in a variety of positions but grows a conscience when he learns the extent of which the US government is keeping tabs on its citizens. That’s when he turns whistleblower, contacting reporters at The Guardian to tell his tale.
Stone fills-out his movie with an interesting supporting cast: Shailene Woodley plays his photographer girlfriend, while Scott Eastwood, Timothy Olyphant and Logan Marshall-Green play other intelligence operatives. Even Nicolas Cage pops-up as a disillusioned CIA agent, resigned to the bowls of the Pentagon. However, these are all small roles, as it’s mainly Gordon-Levitt’s show.
For all the bells and whistles that Stone throws at Snowden, the main flaw is that the true story isn’t that sexy. The whole thing is ultimately about a man walking out of a building with some dowloaded computer files. Watching someone sitting at a computer is hard to make thrilling and while Stone tries to up the paranoia quota, he can’t make it feel exciting. Snowden is posted around the world but you never get a sense of globetrotting – he might as well be an accountant or a travelling salesman. As a character, he’s just not that interesting.
Snowden is flawed by the inertia of the true story. It’s not that the direction isn’t strong or the acting isn’t good, it’s just that the exciting aspect about the Snowden story is how it played out in the press, not how it went down. Oliver Stone was likely the best man to make this film, but even he couldn’t bring life to such an unexciting tale.