Oliver Stone Exposes ‘Snowden’ Pretty Plainly (Movie Review)

snowden thumbPutting acclaimed and occasionally controversial writer/director Oliver Stone behind the lens for a movie about Edward Snowden seemed like an intriguing proposition. It could be a film to take him out of the funk he’s been in for quite some time now. At 69 years of age, Stone’s intentions can certainly be interesting, but why does Snowden still feel so tame? The man who gave us JFK and Born on the Fourth of July can clearly make a confident and compelling feature bristling with larger ideas and themes, but his latest effort seems to lack the risk-taking energy that once helped him stand out among his peers.


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The film starts out well enough, as we are presented with a framing device that actually uses the making of the Oscar-winning documentary CitizenFour to get into the story. Joseph Gordon-Levitt enters the film as Snowden, already working with director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) to tell his story from a hotel room in Hong Kong. We then flashback to 2004, which begins Snowden’s journey from a Special Forces candidate to a member of the CIA to an NSA analyst. This journey allows us to witness why Snowden became disillusioned by his government and would go on to leak classified information, following his fleeing from the USA.

All of this is presented in a fairly straight-forward manner that tells us a dramatized version of the “facts”. Sadly, Stone seems to be uninterested in pointing fingers in directions that register as anything more than the obvious targets. Given how the film was pushed from its original December 2015 release date, it means clips from more recent political figures can be juxtaposed with what the film presents, but Snowden feels fairly plain in its general presentation. If the film set out to have audiences come down on the man as either a hero or a traitor, then more really needed to be done.

It doesn’t help to find the cast more or less adhering to direction based around their function in the story, rather than seeing them really have a chance to dig into what makes them who they are. Gordon-Levitt, for example, is the key component here and all of his actions are reactionary to what is taking place. It makes a level of sense, but even while his commitment to the character (shifty accent included) seems clear, there is too much reliance on us to glean why he thinks the way he does and little to move us deeper into his frame of mind.

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The other actors are fine for the most part, but nothing revelatory. Shailene Woodley has the largest co-starring presence as the typical long-suffering girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. Rhys Ifans has the juiciest part as Patrick Haynes, a mentor to Snowden with more tricks up his sleeve than Snowden (but not the audience) may expect.

Others including Nicolas Cage and Timothy Olyphant pop up to play exactly the kinds of people you expect them to be. Fortunately Ben Schnetzer (fresh off of Warcraft and in something more grounded) gets a chance to play a character who feels fairly lived-in as Gabriel Sol. Gabriel is the character that introduces Snowden to all the ways the NSA can tap into people’s lives and his attitude has the right kind of energy to work well with what a more natural film could have felt like.

It is just a shame these moments of naturalism and a defter handling of the material by Stone could not have been seen throughout the film. I may not have needed the Natural Born Killers approach to Snowden, but the film is far from the dazzling (or dizzying) experiences seen before when it comes to the more exciting features from Stone’s oeuvre. Instead, Snowden feels like a fancy version of a biopic that recalls many of the facts people know, with a further fleshing out of the backstory.

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Never is this more apparent than in the film’s final third, which involves Snowden’s actual act of taking information out of his work. While not a thriller, Snowden attempts to milk tension out of a situation with an obvious conclusion. Regardless of whether or not a Rubik’s Cube was actually involved, the whole scenario feels flat, in addition to scenes portraying a race to put up key reports and the journalists having to tough-talk their way into getting what they want.

Snowden is not poorly made, but it lacks more to be a notable cinematic event. Much like 2015’s The Walk, it appears Gordon-Levitt is once again behind, when it comes to making dramatized features that have already been handled by acclaimed documentaries. However, The Walk at least presented a spectacular 3D spectacle as its centerpiece. Snowden has nothing to really grasp onto, as Stone seems resigned to making a feature with no rough edges. The story is notable, but the film doesn’t leave much of an impact.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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