A few years back, I wrote of Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden and his whistle-blowing on NSA surveillance. I was underwhelmed by the film, finding it to be bloated in some areas and sparse in others. Now I'm underwhelmed all over again by the dramatized take on the same subject, Oliver Stone's biopic Snowden.
Citizenfour's focus on Edward Snowden is largely about what he did. Snowden shifts the focus more to understanding the man who did it. The action hops back and forth in time, in roughly a ten year period leading up to his leak to the press. It's a calculated attempt to grant anyone, regardless of political leanings, permission to like him. The younger Snowden wants, more than anything, to be a flag-waving military man, and is forced to find another way to serve. He starts as a staunch conservative, hardly changed even by his liberal girlfriend Lindsay. If a guy like that stands up to say his government is doing wrong, the movie seems to be saying, you can believe it and agree with it.
But this feels like a lot of pandering to an audience I can't imagine is there. If you're the sort of person predisposed against Edward Snowden, I can't imagine you'd be watching a movie about him -- especially not one directed and co-written by a noted hippie conspiracy peddler like Oliver Stone. I suppose there's some pure narrative value here in emphasizing the protagonist's big journey of change, but there's less value in how repetitive the dramatization becomes. The movie doesn't so much depict a slow disillusionment of Edward Snowden as it just repeats the attempt to open his eyes again and again until, for some reason, it finally works.
Oliver Stone attracts a star-studded cast, as always. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the title character, is really the only one given anything significant to do. The non-chronological structure of the story could have let the reporters working with Snowden be more intriguing characters in their own right, but the most interesting thing about them is that they're played by Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, and Tom Wilkinson. Rhys Ifans and Timothy Olyphant play men in Snowden's past who might be most pivotal in shaping his world view... but the distracting cameo of Nicolas Cage gives them an almost subservient weight. Shailene Woodley does what she can with girlfriend Lindsay, but it's a thinly written part.
I think, surprisingly, that this movie does do a slightly better job than the documentary at outlining what the NSA was doing that drove the real-life Snowden to act. But I think both films fall short of telling the story in as compelling a way as it deserves. I give Snowden a C+. Understanding what Edward Snowden did feels to me like essential knowledge. But this isn't the best way to get it.