Is it probably too soon for an Edward Snowden docudrama? Is Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour a more concise and compelling film on the same subject? The answer to both these questions is a resounding “yes”, though Oliver Stone’s dramatisation still delivers the basic biopic goods, which for many audiences will probably be just enough.
Snowden covers the titular whistleblower’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) expose of the NSA’s egregious surveillance operations worldwide, from his early days as a bright-eyed CIA employee through to his present Russian exile.
Credit to Gordon-Levitt, who for the second time in as many years fends off his own blatant miscasting (moreover, both in movies with superior prior docs) to deliver a surprisingly decent performance, after similarly being a puzzling fit for last year’s The Walk. He may not look much like the actual man, but he does a solid job imitating his distinctly deep voice and, most importantly, capturing his essence.
It is if nothing blessed with an incredible cast; alongside the leading man are Melissa Leo (as documentarian Poitras), Zachary Quinto (the spitting image of journalist Glenn Greenwald), Nicolas Cage, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood and Logan Marshall-Green. It is an absolute embarrassment of acting riches, so something of a shame that the script opts for such a down-the-line, generic treatment.
Snowden is caught in something of an awkward position, beginning amid 2013’s leak but frequently flashing back to his climbing the NSA ranks, which frankly isn’t all that interesting, at least until he gets neck-deep in some very sketchy surveillance ops in the second act. The major dramatic addition comes by way of a sentimental romance with Woodley’s Lindsay Mills, but given how little insight it gives into Snowden the man, it mostly smacks of bloated filler.
It’s a Stone film so, of course, it’s not going to hold much back, though there is a genuinely curious examination of the complexity of patriotism and one’s love of country; after all, how many of Snowden’s supporters even know of his more Conservative opinions?
Largely, though, these more thoughtful moments are washed away by rather on-the-nose soapbox montages, including some immensely corny over-direction that often makes the film feel like a late-90s, early-2000s cyber-thriller before people en masse actually knew anything about computing. There’s even a semi-laughable suspense sequence as Snowden copies the incriminating data to an SD card.
Its final call to arms, complete with a cameo from the real Snowden himself, is basically preaching to the converted, which with the movie’s overall lack of any new discourse, makes it hard to be particularly passionate about. At 135 minutes in length, it’s a bit much, and the R-rating barely serves any function at all beyond showing off Woodley’s boobs.
Still, it scrapes three stars because it’s a solid primer on the subject if you’ve not seen Poitras’ doc, and Gordon-Levitt fares better than expected, no doubt aided by such an absurdly talented cast to bounce dialogue off.
Snowden is in US cinemas now and UK cinemas December 2nd