"The modern battlefield is everywhere"
The true story of the life of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), following his careers in both the CIA and NSA to his subsequent theft and leaking of classified government documents which proved the US government had been illegally spying on its citizens.
It’s been a very, very long time since Oliver Stone has made a good film. There may have been some interesting elements to both W. and the second Wall Street film but ultimately they came across as hollow and soulless. It makes sense that Stone’s return to form would be with something that he’s familiar with and probably most known for, controversy and conspiracy. While “Snowden” doesn’t even come close to the masterpiece that is “JFK”, it does however show Stone flexing cinematic muscles that he hasn’t used in years, albeit in a slightly different direction.
The main focus of “Snowden” is its protagonist, not the controversy. This is an interesting tactic and it helps endear the audience to Ed before the inevitable manhunt in the third act. The structure and pacing are fairly generic, lacking the kinetic energy Stone has been known for, but this isn’t a bad thing. Snowden, as a character in the film, is very methodical in his movements and actions and the film mimics this, taking its time to explore character relationships and allowing moments space to breathe. While it would’ve been interesting to see Stone attack this subject matter with the bravado and urgency of his earlier career that’s clearly not the type of film he's trying to make here.
Gordon-Levitt sinks himself completely into his role as Snowden, seeming to relish the opportunity to have heartfelt one-on-one relationship scenes instead of the usual cheesy, techo-thriller dialogue that one might expect from this type of movie. Shailene Woodley too gives a commendable performance as Snowden’s long-time girlfriend Lindsay Mills, with their relationship serving as not only an entry point for the audience to connect with the characters but also as a nice device to illustrate what Ed is giving up in the back end and what his decisions truly mean to him.
The supporting cast is full of small, meaty roles populated by the likes of Timothy Olyphant, Melissa Leo and Nicolas Cage who do great with the little they’re given. Rhys Ifans, as the films “villain”, is somewhat misguided doing his best impression of a menacing would be Bond villain. This detracts from the bigger issue at the films core and comes across as somewhat lazy. I chalked this up to Stone wanting or needing to have the CIA boss at the heart of the matter be presented as a truly bad person (encompassing the directors feelings for the whole situation and the agency) rather than a well formed, dimensional character.
“Snowden” may not be the best biopic or spy thriller and it certainly isn’t Stone’s best work, it is however a truly enjoyable one. What it lacks in flair or intrigue it more than makes up for with genuine storytelling as Stone and his cast do their best to present an honest depiction of the man’s life rather than a sole focus on the controversy that highlights it. In a world where thrillers are becoming more and more convoluted, “Snowden” is a welcome return to simplistic storytelling done right.
7 out of 10.
Reviewed by Chris Swan.