Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” which was released on Sept. 16, has the cluster of elements that make for a great film: an exciting, mysterious lead character; a timely, multi-faceted national concern and the anesthetizing glory brought on by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s mere presence. Okay, that last one might be a reach for some people.
Even with all these factors, if the goal was to humanize Edward Snowden, as most biopics set out to do for their central characters, that goal may have been what doomed this film from the start. He’s been a bit of an enigma, isn’t he? So far out of reach, he left before anyone knew there was someone to miss. How can one humanize such an elusive character? Of course it’s possible, given that he is in fact human, but Stone’s attempt came off as contrived and it gradually dissipated the natural urgency and marvel stirred by the situation it was modeled after.
“Snowden” picks up with a brief introduction to the main character, who has clearly been transformed in some way, before going back in time a la “How did we end up here?” In this scenario, Stone takes audiences back to 2013, inside a now-infamous Hong Kong hotel room. There, filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald meet with Edward Snowden for the first time after receiving Snowden’s emails containing shocking information regarding the government’s involvement with covert-surveillance programs. During this meeting, Poitras gathers the footage she uses for her documentary “Citizenfour” (2014), which to date has received wide acclaim, including an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. From this brief encounter, audiences muster that Snowden is extremely intelligent and fairly paranoid, although justifiably so.
The film takes a detour and reintroduces Snowden as a dutiful patriot who simply wants to serve his country. His attempts at doing this as a solider are thwarted after he is medically discharged. He then approaches the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which takes a chance on this puzzling individual who did not finish high school, but shows undeniable promise. Through some so-classic-it-will-make-you-roll-your-eyes montages, audiences are made to understand that Snowden is special as he finishes a test in 38 minutes that takes the typical person five hours — come on. That, and he’s an underdog. The perfect mix, right?
Gordon-Levitt visibly works with what he has to ground this character in an accessible way; however, the effect inches its way toward impersonation rather than portrayal. Gradually, and frankly so gradually that the supposed excitement and momentum is rendered flavorless, Snowden grows uncomfortable with the CIA and National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic surveillance measures. He places enormous pressure on himself as if he is the only morally-conflicted person among hundreds of employees. Since the arc of the film is structured around Snowden realizing he has to take matters into his own hands, the majority of the scenes are motivated by introspection. Not exactly the flashy style for which Stone has made himself known.
Amidst all the internal angst, Shailene Woodley plays Snowden’s love interest Lindsay Mills, who appears to claw her way out of the sullen-girlfriend trope. Their scenes together are well-acted, but lack an emotionally resonating punch. The stakes are meant to be tied to an intrusion of their own privacy, which is supposed to in turn highlight how morally repugnant the actions of the NSA and CIA are.
Eventually, Snowden leaves the country with a copy of revealing documents he stole from the NSA. He takes refuge in Hong Kong, and it’s back to where the film started.
The story at hand is, by itself, undeniably exciting. One would think that this film would inherently strike discomfort, terror, paranoia, introspectiveness and a sudden urge to spread the information to as many people as possible as soon as the credits roll. However, the structure and emphasis on Snowden’s humanity muted the chance of exhilaration and instead relayed boredom. Somehow, his characterization lacks the nuance to make the stakes matter to the audience. Instead, it feels forced and just checks off the expected minimum of backstory, inner and outer conflict and character arc.
Perhaps the result could have been more thrilling if the violation-of-privacy element were more prevalent. Paranoia was touched on, but did not strike a nerve like it did in Poitras’ “Citizenfour.” Recent films including Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” (2015) have successfully looked at real-world issues and achieved a resurgence of importance for the matter at hand. It transcends the experience of merely sitting in a dark room because the effects are authentic and a part of our everyday lives. “Snowden” had a lot to live up to, and it deserved to have a heavier hand in instilling the story deeper into our consciousness. Yes, Snowden is made out to be a hero by the end of the film, but the film could have been more daring in achieving this.