Set aside your visions of histrionic, paranoid fireworks. Oliver Stone’s whistleblower biopic Snowden finds the director in an unusually somber and controlled mood, perhaps because of the introverted, awkward nature of Edward Snowden himself. The former CIA employee and National Security Agency contractor, who in 2013 exposed the U.S. government’s global surveillance program, is played here by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a quiet, cerebral nerd: He’s not cut out for the Army or for ground-level espionage, but comes into his own when he’s at a keyboard. And in Snowden, the hyper-stylization of Stone’s earlier films is mostly missing. The film goes back and forth in time, but it’s the steady, predictable jumping of a mainstream historical drama, not the feverish hopscotching of JFK or Nixon. There are very few over-the-top performances. There’s relatively little mixing of film stock. The story also avoids the lazy, talking-point regurgitations of 2008’s hot-button presidential biopic W. Stone seems genuinely interested in the slow and steady process by which Snowden came to distrust the government that he worked for, and the director has made a slow and steady movie to go with it.
Stone opens with Snowden’s first meeting with documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in a Hong Kong hotel, then flashes back across the young man’s life to show how he got to this point: His abortive attempt to join the Special Forces; his introduction to the CIA; his meeting future wife Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley); his discovery of the nefarious uses of surveillance technology. During a period working in Switzerland, Snowden witnesses how a squeaky-clean Pakistani banker is nearly ruined when the CIA, in an effort to win the man’s trust, engineers a series of catastrophes in his life. There is, as always in Hollywood’s version of history, a lot of simplification and explanation going on, and the dialogue has been impressively pop-ified. (“You didn’t tell me we were running a dragnet on the whole world, Corbin!” “You ever hear about the Nuremberg trials, Trev? They weren’t that long ago!”)
Stone can do only so much with the technical specifics of the programs that Snowden worked with, but he makes the broad strokes clear and, occasionally, visually arresting. In one passage, as Snowden describes our hyper-connected world, the screen bursts with beams of light shooting out from one person to another, and another, and another … all eventually connecting to form a glowing, ominous globe. Leave it to Oliver Stone to depict social media as a bad trip.
Snowden is a classic Stone protagonist: an innocent seduced by a world of cruelty and deception who has to make his way back into the sunshine. His journey resembles that, in the director’s masterpiece Born on the Fourth of July, of Tom Cruise’s Ron Kovic — an unquestioning patriot whose mind is slowly opened to his country’s dark side. (When Snowden first meets Lindsay, she’s the one who talks about the misdeeds of the Bush administration while he warns against “bashing my country.”) But Stone is a popular entertainer, too, and he usually requires intense, larger-than-life figures to keep us engaged and carry his message across. Cruise’s Kovic served that purpose in July; Gordon-Levitt has made a study of the real Snowden's voice and mannerisms, but he's playing a subdued, somnolent figure. As a result, it’s often up to the characters he meets along the way, especially his CIA mentor, Corbin O’Brien (a composite figure, played with snarling glee by Rhys Ifans), to keep the energy from flagging. The approach mostly works, though the overall mood remains one of muted despair rather than heated outrage.
Other elements are less successful. Stone still can’t film a domestic scene to save his life, and the relationship between Snowden and Lindsay often is stilted and rote, from their first meet-up via a dating site called GeekMate right through to the bitter turns their romance took as government work consumed him. And although Greenwald and Poitras are used as a framing device, the back-and-forth over the timing of their publishing Snowden’s revelations — filled with breathless, last-second calls to The Guardian newspaper’s offices — come off mostly as gobbledygook. (Quinto in particular is given very little to do, and he does very little with it.)
For all that, this is a surprisingly personal movie. The troubling revelations of Snowden’s whistleblowing fit right in with Stone’s general view of human nature: that people are too fallible and institutions too inherently corrupt to be trusted with this kind of information and power. But it plays into his contrarian side, too. Himself once a child of the establishment, Stone knows the military mentality, and he understands the allure of power; that’s one reason he thrived in the 1980s, as he mixed Reaganite aesthetics with subversive politics. He doesn’t give Snowden’s foils much dimension or humanity, but he does allow them some sincerity. (“Where’s the modern battlefield, soldier?” Corbin asks Snowden late in the film. “Everywhere!” is the response. “What’s the first rule of battle?” “Never reveal your position.” It’s actually kind of a valid point.)
The director also senses in Snowden’s restlessness the signs, perhaps, of a kindred soul. “When you’re really happy, there’s a large part of you that wants to stay happy,” our hero reflects. “Lots of people cruise happily through life. Why can’t I?” I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a question Oliver Stone has at times asked himself.