By Jared Huizenga – Contributing Writer
Some people are calling “Snowden” Oliver Stone’s best work since “JFK” or “Natural Born Killers.” And that’s probably a pretty accurate statement to make, but it’s more of an indictment on the director’s last two decades than it is praise for his latest outing.
The film follows the “spy movie come to life” tale of Edward Snowden. In case you’ve forgotten, Snowden is a one-time CIA and NSA employee and contractor, who leaked classified information about the United States’ tactics of spying on governments and private citizens around the globe.
“Snowden” starts out with the title character meeting up with our title character (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as he meets in a Hong Kong hotel room with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) to discuss the documents he’s in possession of and how he came about them.
From there the film hops back and forth between that 2013 Hong Kong meeting and Snowden’s history, starting with his medical discharge from the U.S. Army and follows his career path through CIA and NSA. It also includes details about his personal life, including medical issues and his tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).
It continues through the release of the documents and outlines some of the fallout that the real-life man has faced since he made the decision to turn government documents over to the media.
Depending on your viewpoint, Snowden is most likely either a traitor or a hero. However, one thing that really can’t be disputed by either side is that the story itself is incredible. How one man was able to plan and execute the theft and subsequent release of highly sensitive and classified documents without getting caught is unfathomable … I can’t even return a Redbox rental a day late without someone noticing.
Sadly, Stone – who also co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald – wasn’t able to bring that incredible tale to the big screen with any teeth.
Despite the threat of being accused of treason and espionage; caught, detained and interrogated outside of the confines of the law; and (quite likely) putting the lives of his hand-picked media partners in jeopardy, Snowden never really seems too concerned about it. Much like the story playing out on screen, he remains cold and unaffected. There was zero intrigue, zero sense of danger, zero emotion.
Obviously I wasn’t there, but I simply cannot believe that the only thing going through people’s minds was when the stories would be published.
My biggest issue was “Snowden,” however, was the manner in which the story was told. Flashbacks are fine and for the first half of the movie, they were quite effective. The 2013 version of Snowden would answer a question about his past and the story would flashback to that time, before hopping back. There was no extra context added, what you saw on the screen was what was driving the narrative. At about the midway point, 2013 Snowden would answer a question and again it would jump back in time. This time, however, it included a voice-over. I know it was added to give more context to those points in time, but I simply found it to be too much. As weird as it seems, when you settle into the tone and narration style of a movie like this, only to have them change paths at the mid-point, it’s distracting and can take you out of the flow of the movie.
Gordon-Levitt (once you move beyond the voice), is solid, but not spectacular. The rest of the cast is OK – Woodley is a bit grating at times and Quinto, who has a proven ability to play intense characters, but came off as little more than a guy that liked to yell. There’s also an awkward Nicholas Cage spotting. But really, isn’t every Nicholas Cage spotting kind of awkward?
Another critic who wasn’t able to see “Snowden” asked me my thoughts on it. I told him it was very “Oliver Stoney.” Somewhat surprisingly, he knew exactly what I meant.
Stone is seemingly into conspiracy theories (back and to the left) and exposing government corruption. If you’re on board with that, you might enjoy the heroic light he shines on Snowden. If you’re on the other side of the aisle, you’re likely going to detest Stone, Snowden and that aforementioned light. For those of us somewhere in the middle, you’re going to wonder why bother telling an almost too far-fetched to believe story, if you’re not going to give it the oomph it deserves.
★★ of ★★★★★
Jared Huizenga is a freelance movie critic. Follow his work at www.facebook.com/JaredMovies.