With esteemed (if sometimes polarizing) filmmaker Oliver Stone at the helm, one might expect a biopic of NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden to be a thrilling look at the thorny issues of privacy, national security, and freedom in our modern digital age. But despite strong performances and a compelling story, "Snowden" can't quite match the excitement of real life -- which was captured so compellingly in Laura Poitras' terrific, Oscar-winning 2014 documentary "Citizenfour."
In fact the film uses the filming of that documentary as a framing device, dramatizing Snowden's meeting with Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) while holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong. From there the film cuts back and forth, splitting its time between Snowden's past, tracing his path from Special Forces trainee to CIA recruit, as his computer skills catch the attention of his eventual mentor Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans), and earn him a prime place on the front line of the organization's cyber battlefield.
While on the job, a fellow hacker (nicely played by Ben Schnetzer) introduces Snowden to the various programs and technologies at their disposal, including XKeyscore, an NSA search engine which basically turns every webcam and mobile phone into devices of global surveillance, allowing them to keep tabs on anyone in the world, for whatever reason they see fit. Thus begins a series of on-the-job discoveries which lead to his decision to leak classified documents to the public and reveal that the government knowingly spied on millions of Americans, not just those suspected of terrorist ties.
Stone's strength as a filmmaker is his ability to make dynamic, visceral films out of political ideology. Whatever your opinions about the quality of his past work, his movies are always interesting. But that skill is curiously absent here. The director is working in a more somber mode than the hyperkinetic style typically associated with his work. The result is a film that feels oddly old-fashioned for as ostensibly of-the-moment techno-thriller. And if you're already familiar with Snowden's story, Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald add little in the way of new material.
But Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers an excellent, if subdued, performance. He not only captures Snowden's distinctively monotone voice, but also turns the shy, introverted man into a compelling screen figure. The film's other major plotline revolves around Snowden's romantic relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a photographer and die-hard liberal. The role is well-performed by Woodley, but the character mostly serves as a mouthpiece to espouse the idea that patriotism doesn't necessarily require blind loyalty to the government, and to kickstart Snowden's eventual transformation. Despite the cast's best efforts, "Snowden" can't help feeling like the latest illustration of the ways that fiction is never a match for real life.