Oliver Stone doesn’t do short and sweet. He does long and developed. Most of the time, he’s even really good at doing important, tense, conflicted moments in US history. If there’s a confusing saga that’s worth this kind of unweaving and reassembly, that of domestic surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden seems to qualify; Stone conveys its importance in a story that feels expertly dramatic.
By now, the furor surrounding Snowden’s remarkable 2013 actions has died down, and this biopic that hits the highlights of his forever-changed life revives a tale that could fall into the virtual weeds of computer jargon. Instead, it grows into a furious flower under the storied director’s hand and with the solid foundation laid by an earlier award-winning documentary, Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras.
Stone is certainly sympathetic to his cause, sticking to the theme that Snowden has continued to preach: He leaked classified documents that revealed extensive data collection methods by the United States government so that the people of the nation could debate their use and consequences. Government officials say Snowden is far from a hero, having committed treason on the modern battlefield, and their perspective clearly wears the black hat in Stone’s packed narrative.
Nevertheless, we already knew which side you’re on, Oliver (and not just because of the pre-film reminder to silence phones, in which you say the devices and our voluntary disclosure of digital information will “be our undoing”).
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (Inception) depiction of boyish Snowden has audiences swooning for a loveable love story while cringing at the difficult decisions he makes. When the camera shifts in the final frames to the real Ed, the transition is seamless enough to reinforce how believable the effort came off.
Adding drama, and a bit of fiction, is Snowden’s close confidant and career-building connection, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans from The Amazing Spider-Man), who appears from the beginning as a sort of Clint Eastwood-esque scary badass who could make you and all your kinfolk disappear. Modeled after Orwell’s Big Brother, he serves as the face of the community that rationalizes what Snowden’s character in the movie calls the US “running a dragnet on the whole world.”
Then, back to reality, prolific Melissa Leo (The Fighter) plays filmmaker Poitras, the eyes behind Citizenfour, released in 2014. Footage from Stone’s version closely mirrors the effect that Poitras produced when she accompanied print journalists who worked to break the story in the Guardian. It’s great that Leo’s Poitras has the unkempt look that you’d expect from a documentarian, yet she seems unnecessarily bedraggled. The real Poitras, a woman who has fearlessly produced a ton of work questioning other government policies, appears in recent photographs looking poised and clear and full of energy.
Nicolas Cage also drops in wearing a familiar character in what is perhaps one of the few stumbles from Stone. We love the close encounters with antique spy equipment, yet we wonder why Cage didn’t get better lines.
Today, Snowden remains in Moscow with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, whose presence in the film from Shailene Woodley (Divergent), by the way, adds more humanity to Stone’s cyber sphere, if not particular depth. Just a step above being a man without a country, he’s safe there—for the time being—from extradition to the US where he might face long imprisonment.
In a way though, he’s already in prison. And if you’re reading this on your computer or smartphone, so are you.
Directed by Oliver Stone
With Gordon-Levitt, Cage, Ifans, Leo and Woodley
Violet Crown, Regal,