The story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was practically made for Oliver Stone.
Government overreach, conspiracy and corruption, plus a hero who acts alone in defiance of hopeless odds — they’re all the elements of a typical Stone film (“Wall Street,” “Platoon,” “Salvador,” “JFK,” “Born on the Fourth of July”).
And with age has come a certain mellowing of the Stone approach. It’s not like he’s any less radically left — it’s just that now he can make his case without the hysteria and hyperbole that often marred his earlier work.
And in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stone has a leading man seemingly at the peak of his powers.
Those whose minds are not already made up when it comes to l’affaire Snowden will find Stone’s new film “Snowden” largely convincing. Even if you’re inclined to brand Snowden as a traitor worthy of death, the film will remain troubling.
(OK, time out. Let me say up front that while “Snowden” is a good film, it pales in comparison with “Citizenfour,” the Oscar-winning documentary from 2015 in which the real Snowden, a newly minted international fugitive hiding in a Hong Kong hotel room, is interrogated by the journalists who would leak his most inflammatory revelations to the awaiting world. Everyone should see “Citizenfour.” But most people dislike documentaries, and so the fictional Stone version will be the one most people will see and remember. Fact of life.)
Most of “Snowden” is one long flashback. In the present we’re in that hotel room with filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson).
Tell us about yourself, one of the journalists says, and the next thing we know we’re at an Army training camp where young Edward Snowden is preparing to take on the terrorists who leveled the World Trade Center.
Except that physical problems earn him a discharge. Looking for another way to serve Uncle Sam he tries out for government intelligence work, where his computer savvy is instantly recognized by NSA bigwig Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who grooms the young man for great, if unpublicized, things.
The film spends some time delineating the relationship between Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, an artist specializing in photographic self-portraits in various stages of undress. Since Mills is portrayed by Shailene Woodley, who oozes good-girl all-Americanism from every pore, her narcissistic avocation raises hardly an eyebrow.
But mostly we’re with Edward in a series of highly classified government jobs where his growing awareness of the scope of America’s domestic spying — that basically every cellphone call is indiscriminately sucked up for analysis by supercomputers — forces him to make a choice between accepting the status quo or blowing the whistle.
The pragmatic indifference of his bosses to the moral questions raised by this process only fuels his desperation.
“Most Americans,” says O’Brian, “don’t want freedom. They want security.”
Most of “Snowden” is talk — pretty smart talk, actually. (The screenplay is by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald). But late in the proceedings it turns into a suspenseful caper film as the young computer genius comes up with a novel way to sneak all this classified information out of the secret underground computer center built beneath a Hawaiian mountain. (It looks like a villain’s lair from a Bond movie.)
Gordon-Levitt, one of our best young actors, lowers his voice an octave for the role. That’s impressive, but even better is the way he balance Edward’s essential geekiness with a growing conscience.
This isn’t an action film, and it desperately needs a leading man to whom the eye and ear are naturally drawn. Gordon-Levitt is it.
In the past Stone has been borderline hallucinogenic with his filmmaking tricks, but here he plays things pretty straight. He seems less concerned with thrilling or titillating than with laying out the stages of Snowden’s radicalization in a way we can relate to.
On that count he has nailed it.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R. Time: 2:18.