– By Jonathan W. Hickman, special to The Newnan Times-Herald
The story already has the Oscar. The fantastic 2014 documentary “Citizenfour” took us inside the Edward Snowden event as it actually transpired. From a luxury hotel room in Hong Kong, Snowden, journalist Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and journalist Ewen MacAskill shocked the world by reporting on the leak of thousands of classified U.S. government documents. That film was fascinating and unique and worthy of the recognition it received.
Naturally, this exciting and newsworthy story of espionage and government overreach was perfect for narrative feature film treatment. And naturally, the best director for the job was Oliver Stone, who is famously known for his revisionist view of historical events. Even though his liberal perspective often shapes his narratives, the results can be really wonderful and arguably fair. After all, this is the guy who made Richard Nixon sympathetic.
So, with “Snowden” can Stone return to form after a lackluster decade of films? The answer is “yes” and “no.” “Snowden” is a finely crafted picture that can’t seem to find its thematic focus.
While it has moments of insight and thrilling tension, Stone, working from a screenplay he’s co-written, just can’t seem to tell us who his protagonist is and what his motivations were for taking the law into his own hands. Despite clocking in at over two hours, Stone never gets inside Snowden’s head and instead observes the young man from a distance. And given the previous film and huge amount of media coverage, there is nothing new here to report.
Joseph Gordon Levitt is once again very good as the lead. He is a major talent for sure, and as Snowden he adopts the computer expert’s monosyllabic speech pattern and geeky haircut. But the script makes him into an unappealing android that would likely be rejected from Westworld as not human enough. Shailene Woodley is more natural playing Snowden’s girlfriend, but like so much in the film, we are given no idea why she is in love with him. Terrifying is Rhys Ifans as a shadowy CIA operative who acts as Snowden’s mentor and superior.
While there is good work on display here, perhaps unforgivable is that in its concluding moments, “Snowden” becomes an odd mixture of fact-based fiction and political non-fiction—blurring the line. Without spoiling the details of the scene, this jarring turn is distracting and the film lapses into a talky and undeniably preachy mini-TED talk. This means that “Snowden” will be appealing to those who consider the former CIA employee a heroic whistleblower and infuriating to those who call him a traitor.