Review: Oliver Stone's Messy, Fascinating 'Snowden'

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone's "Snowden." Open Road Films

Don't date a National Security Agency contractor. Maybe that's the surest lesson from Oliver Stone's Snowden. It's a tough life. In moody, darkly lit scenes set in faraway Tokyo or Hawaii, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spars with longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). She's frustrated, reasonably so. He's irritable and distant, spending days and nights brooding over government secrets at an NSA facility. He snaps when she shows off a collection of arty, nude self-portraits on her hard drive. "Delete them," he mutters. Mills is defiant. "I'm flattered that my boobs are considered an issue of national security," she retorts.

The personal is political in Stone's latest high-octane historical drama thriller. Of course it is; the NSA's harvesting of millions of Americans' private communications would not have been a national outrage if Americans did not have private lives worth protecting. As for Snowden's own private life, unfamiliar to most Americans who know him only from his 2013 treasure trove of leaked surveillance documents, there's a lot of it in Stone's film: his 2004 discharge from Special Forces, prompted by an injury; his dazzling entry into the CIA, where he was a "computer wizard"; his struggles with epilepsy; and, of course, his relationship with Mills, an extroverted dancer-type. She is portrayed as Snowden's opposite, both politically and temperamentally, and there's a surprising amount of focus on her character.

Snowden is a quintessential Oliver Stone hero, one whose patriotism melts to paranoia in a two-hour runtime. Though Snowden is Stone's third film to address the events or aftermath of September 11—2006's World Trade Center and 2008's engrossing but muddled Bush portrait W came first—it draws on an old formula, one the filmmaker developed in 1989's Vietnam classic Born on the Fourth of July: A young man (it's always a man) has lofty ideals about serving his country, enlists in some arm of the government or military and winds up disillusioned and disgusted with the myriad corruptions of the System. He drinks the Kool-Aid, in other words, and winds up with acid reflux.

The screenplay shifts back and forth between this narrative and "present day" scenes in a Hong Kong hotel room, where Snowden hands over classified materials to a team of investigative reporters scurrying to prepare the bombshell reports before the whistleblower is captured. (Zachary Quinto plays then–Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, Melissa Leo is filmmaker Laura Poitras, and Tom Wilkinson is The Guardian's Ewen MacAskill.) The structure is a somewhat clumsy attempt to inject action into otherwise staid background scenes. Basically, Stone recreates moments from Poitras's Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour with more heart-pumping music and Hollywood suspense. (Reportedly, Stone asked Poitras to delay her film to coincide with his, which she had no interest in doing.)

Fourth of July, of course, had combat scenes. Snowden has data. Computers. Surveillance. It's hard to make this stuff riveting. There is an awful lot of whirring techno music and flashy data-themed visual effects, which give the film its hyper-stylized approach. Like 1991's JFK, the film slips real news footage and political clips into the dramatization, conveying a fittingly modern sense of information overload. (The movie's credits contain an audio clip of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debating Snowden in 2015.) Stone doesn't really do romance. During a rare sex scene, he spins away from Snowden and zooms in on the spying eye of the laptop webcam.

As Snowden, Gordon-Levitt is so muted, so cloistered, that it can be easy to miss that it's a very good performance. He speaks in a low, brainy voice that's very similar to Snowden's own. His horror at the vastly intrusive surveillance complex to which he's given the keys is conveyed in small gestures, in the way he carries himself around his superiors and shudders at the work he's doing. And Rhys Ifans is evil, if a little too cartoonishly Big Brother–like, as the government boss who says things like, "Most Americans don't want freedom—they want security." Even Stone alumnus Nicolas Cage pops up, giving a suitably strange performance as a jaded CIA mentor.

Lots of critics have bristled at Snowden for being heavy-handed or partisan. Of course it is. There is not much ideological subtlety. This is Oliver Stone, a filmmaker whose Bush biopic obsesses over daddy issues more than your therapist. A movie that so intimately explores why Snowden did what he did is not likely to argue for his prosecution (we have The Washington Post for that). What it does do is make such an enigmatic figure seem complex and human. And the basic political thrust—that the NSA has developed an unprecedented global surveillance network without accountability, that one nerdy 29-year-old revealed it at great personal risk—is not untrue.

At a weekend screening at the Brooklyn Public Library, where I saw Snowden in a room cramped with journalists and Brooklynites (on 9/11, of all days), Stone and Snowden attorney Ben Wizner appeared onstage for a brief Q&A. "Is this a true story?" asked one viewer. It's a slippery question: Each of Stone's historical dramas is heavily dramatized. The filmmaker funnels true events through the lens of conspiracy and ideology. JFK, Stone's masterpiece, had that head-spinning park bench scene with Donald Sutherland's shadowy "X" character. In Snowden, one of the best dramatic sequences—in which the whistleblower cleverly uses a Rubik's Cube to sneak government files past a security checkpoint—was invented by Snowden himself. (So how did he actually do it? He's not spilling.)

So what's the answer—is it a true story? Stone just chuckled. "Let's get the NSA's statement."