As I type this, my webcam is staring at me. Before 2013 I, like many others, wasn’t worried that I could be monitored remotely from thousands of miles away by someone who can wirelessly access my laptop. But with the daring actions of Edward Snowden, it became clear just how little privacy we had left and in the process created an on-going debate about whether or not he was a hero or a traitor.
It would be only appropriate, then, that politically-fueled director Oliver Stone would find his next conversation-starting film in the life of Snowden as he takes us through the decade leading up to the whistleblowing. At times, Snowden is as gripping as Stone’s JFK—which might just convince you that Oswald wasn’t the only shooter—but it occasionally loses its groove when Stone tries to be overly-stylistic. However, in contrast to much of Stone’s recent work, the film proves to be provocative and highly entertaining, all supported on the firm shoulders of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his best performance to date.
Beginning in 2013 as Snowden meets with the members of The Guardian who will break the news about the data Snowden stole, the story jumps back in time to fill in the missing pieces. Starting with his brief time in the military, we learn that Snowden is an optimist; he wants to serve his country the best he can. Well the military doesn’t work out so hot for him as he essentially destroys his legs, so he finds himself working for the CIA and NSA.
The film is mostly comprised of what Snowden is doing in the past, while long lengths of time pass before we see him trapped in a hotel room in Hong Kong with the journalists played by Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, and Melissa Leo to appropriately allow time jumps. The script is mostly effective in moving the film forward, though at 134 minutes, its length is definitely felt after a couple fake climaxes.
On all fronts the acting is superb, particularly by Gordon-Levitt who really becomes Snowden, and surprisingly by Nicolas Cage. Shailene Woodley is also a standout playing the conflicted girlfriend of Snowden who must accept his secretive lifestyle. Unfortunately, we never see Shailene’s Lindsey as her own person, her scene’s are almost always about Edward and their relationship. With so much complexity to her character, a little more depth would have helped Woodley expand on her already fantastic performance.
With the story being so tied to technology and computers, it isn’t too surprising that Stone would choose to have some stylistic choices when it came to editing and portraying certain motifs and theme’s. Some of these, like swirling CGI and edgy camera movement distort and weaken the impact the film has to offer. Combine this with the fact that the events of the film take place less than a decade ago and you get a film that is trying to be too timely for its own sake, as nothing really comes a surprise and the big moments have already been headlines. Maybe another decade or so would have strengthened the impact, but it still makes you think nonetheless.
When all’s said and done, Oliver Stone really shows some improvements in Snowden when compared the the previous decade. Is it a masterpiece, no, those days are long gone for him, but what it does do, it does so with some efficacy. Make no mistake, Gordon-Levitt pulls out all the stops, and I will be sorely disappointed if he’s not up for any awards this yer.