'Snowden': Oliver Stone Fails to Recapture His Glory Days With Whistleblower Biopic

‘Snowden,’ starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is Oliver Stone’s most satisfying picture for many years, but doesn't provide the passion that existed in his early films.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley in Snowden.'

The American director Oliver Stone launched his career with a bang. Beginning with his third film, “Salvador,” in 1986 (before which he’d directed, with a long interval between, two forgotten horror thrillers), Stone made a series of pictures that burned with powerful gut passion. They deconstructed the history and reality of America into its mythic elements in order to reassemble them into controversial portraits whose essence was simultaneously concrete and symbolic, and rife with rage and irony. The peaks of this period in Stone’s directorial career were the Oscar-winning “Platoon,” “Wall Street,” “Born on the Fourth of July” (which garnered Stone a second Oscar for director), “JFK” and “Natural Born Killers,” and finally “Nixon,” in 1995.

But his work in the two decades since “Nixon” has been far less substantial. “Alexander,” Stone’s only foray into the realm of the historical epic, was embarrassing; “World Trade Center” oozed with patriotic sentimentality that one didn’t expect from a Stone movie; the sequel to “Wall Street,” subtitled “Money Never Sleeps,” was far less trenchant than its predecessor; and who even remembers “Savages,” an undistinguished crime movie from 2012?

Stone’s new film, “Snowden,” seems to take him back to the territory that determined his status in American cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s the story of Edward Snowden, who exposed the scale of the infringement by the National Security Agency of the right to privacy of citizens of the United States and many other countries.

There’s a thematic link between Snowden and Ron Kovic, the protagonist of “Born on the Fourth of July.” Both characters are based on real people, patriotic Americans whose faith in their country flags (in Kovic’s case, because he comes to recognize the folly and horror of the Vietnam War, in which he fought) and they turn against it, whether by creating a protest movement, as Kovic did or, in Snowden’s case, by releasing incriminating documents.

Certainly “Snowden” is Stone’s most satisfying picture for many years, and viewing it stirs interest. Still, it lacks something that existed in his earlier films. Those works created a feeling of enthusiasm, and in some cases also gave rise to the feeling that Stone enjoyed the controversy they aroused. But the new movie does not provoke similar enthusiasm. Stone is clearly on Snowden’s side. He depicts him as estimable, even admirable, but he doesn’t succeed in bringing out the ambivalent aspects of Snowden’s story and turning him into a complex figure. On top of this, the passion that characterized Stone’s outstanding pictures is missing, supplanted by a factual dryness whose elaborate detail makes it difficult to follow the portrayal of Snowden’s activity in the CIA and afterward in the NSA.

The film also has quite a standard structure. In the present, Snowden meets in a Hong Kong hotel room with the director Laura Poitras (whose excellent 2014 documentary about him, “Citizenfour,” won an Oscar), played by Melissa Leo, and with the journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), to show them the information he smuggled out of his NSA office in Hawaii, so that it can be made available to the London-based newspaper The Guardian. From the present, the film goes back in time via a series of flashbacks to tell Snowden’s life story, occasionally returning to the Hong Kong hotel room. During one of the hotel episodes, a Skype conversation takes place with Janine Gibson (Joely Richardson), a senior Guardian editor, about whether Snowden’s information is sufficiently reliable to permit its quick publication.

A gambler and romantic

The flashbacks return us to 2004, when the 20-year-old Snowden, a high-school dropout from a military family, enlists in the U.S. Special Forces for patriotic reasons, but is forced to leave the service because of an injury. Disappointed, but wishing to go on serving his country, he joins the CIA as an analyst. There he first encounters the scale of the organization’s surveillance of citizens under the administration’s aegis. Not yet upset by this, he transfers to the NSA, attracted primarily by the high salary. Being sent on missions to different places satisfies his adventurist character, which is to some extent that of a gambler who’s inclined to romanticism (a trait the film suppresses in order to present Snowden as a fighter for the rights of the individual).

On a parallel track to Snowden’s work in these agencies, the movie focuses on the protagonist’s private life. An affair develops between Snowden and a young photographer named Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). She has a hard time adjusting to his secretive activity, but because of her love for and belief in him, whither he goes, she goes (she’s currently living with him in his Moscow exile). There’s not much depth to the portrayal of their relationship, but Woodley’s agreeable presence lends a bit of tenderness to the somewhat lifeless proceedings.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as Snowden, though, is of a piece with the movie. He plays the part with discreet restraint, which is certainly accurate (as can be seen from the real Snowden’s appearances in the media, in Poitras’ documentary and finally at the end of Stone’s film) but results in his being swallowed up into the character without revealing his complexity and the complexity of his motives. Nor does Gordon-Levitt’s decorous self-restraint hint at a measure of mystery, which could have made the character more interesting.

An additional weakness of “Snowden” is its total lack of ideological-moral ambivalence and sense of criticism. In fact, with its technologically elaborate plot and its subtitles (meant to help orient us in the story), it looks like an adaptation of Poitras’ documentary into a feature film, though more in the form of a correct cinematic report than a work that reignites Snowden’s fascinating story. From this point of view, the movie does not herald a return to form in Stone’s cinematic art. If the multilayered quality of the director’s early work often played a part in generating enthusiasm and controversy, there is nothing in “Snowden” to evoke those qualities. At most, Snowden’s presentation as a hero might anger those who are revolted by what he did, but even this aspect of the film bears a temperate character, like the picture as a whole.