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Snowden review: Oliver Stone's whistleblower movie plays it safe

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Courtesy of TIFF

As a filmmaker, Oliver Stone arguably built his career on the idea of questioning the establishment. Whether critiquing the way we looked at the Vietnam War (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), the Reaganomic excesses of the ‘80s (Wall Street), or even conventional cinematic norms (the jarring, music-video inspired Natural Born Killers), Stone has always tried to push the envelope — and if that resulted in some people thinking he sounded like a crackpot conspiracy theorist (hi, JFK), then so much the better.

All of which makes his latest film, a biopic on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, such a disappointment. It’s the story of an idealistic young man who slowly learns that the government is working in increasingly nefarious ways, wrapping his life in a cocoon of conspiracy and paranoia until he’s simply forced to speak out. But where there should be passion, there’s shortcuts; where one expects outrage, there’s clumsy brute-force dramatics.

Despite its good intentions, Snowden doesn’t rail against the establishment. It is the establishment.

Pulling from multiple sources — Stone optioned UK journalist Luke Harding’s book The Snowden Files, an inspired-by-reality novel called Time of the Octopus by Snowden’s Russian attorney, and met with the whistleblower himself — the film uses the days leading up to the first Snowden leaks as a framing device. Stone is basically remaking Laura Poitras’ fantastic documentary Citizenfour with a Hollywood cast, with Melissa Leo playing the documentarian, Zachary Quinto as an apoplectic Glenn Greenwald, and, of course, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden.

Working with computers to a synth beat: check

The structure is clearly intended to lend a sense of ticking-clock urgency to the film, even as it flashes back to show Snowden’s backstory, starting with him trying to break into the Special Forces in the early 2000s — a dream that died when he broke his legs. In the early going Edward Snowden is a proud conservative, blindly loyal to his government, who never stops to question anything that comes his way. After the accident, Snowden turns his focus to computers, joining the CIA where he quickly becomes a standout pupil and catches the eye of his instructor, high-level intelligence operative Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans, who plays the role so big he may as well be twirling an invisible mustache).

It’s an early sign that things are wrong with Snowden: a lot happens fast, and far too conveniently. Snowden aces a cyber-exam test nearly five times faster than the best record — set to a pulsing synth beat, of course — after which O’Brian practically gives him free rein. He meets a dusty old professor name Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), who seems to exist in the film for no other reason than somebody needed to spell out that Sometimes The Government Does Things That Are Bad.

Courtesy of TIFF

Soon, Snowden is heading overseas, where he becomes a top operative focusing on intelligence gathering — and his unyielding faith in his government starts to get pulled down, one brick at a time. Leading that charge initially is his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. Played by Shailene Woodley, she starts as yet another version of the manic pixie dream girl — She’s a photographer! She’s a liberal! She’s comfortable in her body, while silly Snowden doesn’t even like having his picture taken! — but after serving as that initial inspiration ex machina, the character’s agency evaporates. Lindsay puts up with Snowden’s paranoid, secretive ways, which border on abusive at times, and continues to back him up and help him, no matter where he decides he needs to go or what he needs to do. It’s an outdated, reductive portrayal of a character that seems to exist only to serve her boyfriend’s wants and needs (or complain about him), and while Woodley does her best to bring some life to the role she can’t work miracles when faced with Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald’s torpid script.

The actors are trapped between two different movies

Performances — usually a high point in Stone’s films — lag across the board. Warcraft’s Ben Schnetzer, as a programmer who gives Snowden his first peek at the surveillance programs he will eventually reveal, escapes unscathed on the sheer power of charisma, as do Tom Wilkinson and Leo in the wraparound storyline. But the other actors feel like they’re stuck in two different movies: one is a high-minded drama trying to explain the vast overreach of the NSA’s wiretapping operation, while the other is a popcorn-y, would-be spy thriller that wants to hang names like PRISM and XKeyscore on a catchy hook for mainstream audience.

The struggle is reflected throughout the film. Gordon-Levitt immerses himself in the role, dropping his voice an octave and recreating the exact pattern of Snowden’s facial stubble — but then the character is introduced as a guy who absentmindedly solves a Rubik’s Cube one-handed, summer movie shorthand for mathematical / computer savant. When Forrester sees news reports about the Snowden leaks, he reacts like a proud dad in a sports drama: "He did it!" he says, raising his beer in a toast. "The kid did it!" It’s as if the movie is so concerned with being accessible, that it jettisons the ferocity and subversion that makes the idea of pairing Stone and Snowden so interesting in the first place.

But it is thorough — I’ve read and watched a lot about Edward Snowden, and for a quick, two-hour-ish rundown, Snowden covers most of the bases. For audiences that aren’t as familiar with the story, Stone is able to mythologize the man’s conflict in terms that everyone can appreciate it: love of country, love of privacy, concern for the people that are closest to us. But that’s not the same thing as creating something electric and memorable, that will drive fierce debate. The issues that Snowden raises are without question some of the biggest issues of our times — but a movie this safe won’t leave anybody thinking about them.

Snowden opens on September 16th.