Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Genre: Thriller/ Biopic
Though initially a firm conservative, as he climbs the ranks at the NSA, Edward Snowden (Levitt) learns of their illegal surveillance techniques, and risks everything to expose this to the rest of the world, and in doing so becomes one of the most wanted men in the world.
Throughout his career, Oliver Stone has certainly not been afraid to get a bit political and make some thought provoking points in his films. Well, his output has certainly dipped in quality in the last twenty years, but Snowden is definitely his best film for many years, which is a relief, as Edward Snowden’s story deserves to be made into a good film. One of the film’s strongest aspects is that it actually remains quite politically neutral, even if its attempts to balance politics and melodrama are not quite so successful.
Instead of being some preachy left-wing agenda piece (that it could have easily been), Oliver Stone and his co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald simply try to tell Snowden’s story in a very balanced way; this is a man that did something because he strongly believed that he was doing the right thing, meaning that we not only have a sympathetic protagonist with integrity, but the film also treats the audience with respect, and lets us make up our own minds as to whether we agree. At one point in the film Snowden simply states that he did what he did as he wants the general public to know all the facts and then make their own choice, and thankfully the film takes the same stance.
Of course, anyone who follows current affairs will not find Snowden to contain particularly shocking or eye-opening revelations, but what it does do very effectively is start a debate, and a very important and relevant debate it is too. Though the backwards and forwards framed narrative does feel a little episodic at times (this however can be forgiven as there is a lot to get through), how it is told is very absorbing and engaging, despite being dialogue heavy. Stone uses some snappy visuals which helps, and also makes the film actually cinematic and justifies itself as a narrative feature film and not doesn’t just feel like a documentary.
What also helps with our engagement is the performances; Edward Snowden appears at the end of the film and, among other things, this actually reminds us that despite the glasses, Joseph Gordon Levitt does not actually look that much like him, though the accent is pretty much spot on. However, for over two hours, thanks to Levitt’s exceptional performance we forget this and do just believe in his character and never once think “isn’t that the kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun?” An Oscar nomination would certainly feel justified in my view. Whether the character arc of Snowden is exaggerated in the narrative or not, his character only emerges with integrity as he is simply doing what he strongly believes to be the right thing to do, at least in the context of the narrative of this film.
Oliver Stone has assembled an all-star cast, some of whom only turn up in a few scenes, but they all deliver excellent turns. Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto and Timothy Olyphant are all very effective in their narratively crucial roles. The notable standout is Rhys Ifans (again, definitely deserving of an Oscar nomination), who delivers a superbly intense performance as a CIA superior. Though his character is not just a two-dimensional bad guy; he believes in his own personal views as strongly as Snowden, and his character gets his moments to justify them. Nicolas Cage also deserves a mention, as not only is seeing him on an actual cinema screen such a rare (and therefore momentous occasion) these days, but he is also very charismatic and watchable in the few scenes that he does get.
Shailene Woodley undoubtedly gives a great performance as Lindsay Mills, Edward Snowden’s loyal girlfriend. However, though there is obviously no denying how important she is in Snowden’s life, it is the parts that focus on her character that do not work so well, though this is certainly no fault of Woodley’s. At 135 minutes Snowden is a long film, and it does at times drag, and these times are when the story focusses on Snowden’s relationship with Mills. This is of course a story about the man himself just as much as what he did, but unfortunately how this aspect of the story is told does feel like unnecessary melodrama, and an annoying and sometimes unnecessary distraction from the film’s real substance. It also does make the overall viewing experience feel like more of an effort than it should have been.
Though the inclusion of this aspect of the story certainly feels justified, how it is told could certainly do with a little more rigour and discipline. However, despite these narrative issues, there is no denying that Snowden is an important and thought provoking film relevant to our current times.
A long-awaited return to form for Oliver Stone; though it has a few storytelling issues, Snowden is an engaging, suitably balanced, thought provoking and relevant film for our current times.