The issue facing any filmmaker with a biopic is giving the audience something they don’t already know from a famous or infamous story — a challenge director Oliver Stone easily overcomes with surprisingly even-handed aplomb in Snowden.
In the past, I have been more a fan of Stone’s early fictionalized works (Platoon, Wall Street, Natural Born Killers) than his more biographical fare (Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, W) because I felt his political bent often overwhelmed the proceedings. In Snowden, while Stone’s personal opinions are no doubt evident in adapting the much-publicized story of a government whistle-blower exposing national security secrets for the presumed greater public good, the director at least gives some voice to the argument that the main character may be hailed as a traitor — rather than an international hero — for his actions.
Just in case you do not know the story, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) starts out as an Army recruit inspired to serve his country after the 9/11 attacks, yet is quickly sidelined by injury and offers his considerable tech talents for use by the CIA and the National Security Agency. He quickly rises through the ranks, eventually finding himself at the crux of a dilemma where he must decide if the surveillance industry (of which he is part) has crossed the moral and legal line into scenarios we only think enemies of the U.S. employ.
The excellent supporting cast (Zachary Quinto, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans and Timothy Olyphant) carries the narrative for the first act until Gordon-Levitt finds his dramatic footing. (I was initially apprehensive of his deadpan accent when I saw the trailer, but Gordon-Levitt eventually more than laid to rest my lingering worries from his annoying performance in last year’s The Walk.) When that finally happens, he shines by humanizing Snowden beyond the narrative already covered in Glenn Greenwald’s reportage in The Guardian newspaper and 2014 book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.
Of additional note is how actress Shailene Woodley bucks Stone’s trend of sometimes minimizing female characters in his films and transforms what is initially a narcissistic and naive character into a mature woman showing compassion and intelligence beyond the director’s usual stereotypical shrew. Woodley’s previous work in 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent series was fairly standard, but her portrayal of Snowden’s partner here demonstrates both a character arc absent in her earlier performances while simultaneously showcasing her ample talents.
No stranger to controversy, Stone managed to surprise me by adding something not only interesting but also unexpected to Snowden’s story. This is most evident in the final moments of the film just before Peter Gabriel’s new song, “The Veil,” neatly recaps the plot points to underscore the director’s final statement on how he wants history to view Snowden’s struggle.
It may be difficult for some audience members to separate their views on Snowden’s actions from what is depicted on-screen in Stone’s version of events. Those who can should agree that, despite the 2:15 running time, it does make for a compelling narrative — and not just Oscar-bait along the lines of the similar “ripped from the headlines” stories (Sully) and slavishly upbeat bio pics (Florence Foster Jenkins) currently vying for attention at the cinema. Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.
Now playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore and Epic of Hendersonville.