If Hannah Arendt focused on the banality of evil, Oliver Stone focuses on the banality of goodness. His new film “Snowden” feels like a retread of “Wall Street,” where a terminally bland young man is intoxicated by the excesses of a brilliantly corrupt environment but turns on his benefactors in the name of justice. In this case, Stone is working from a real-life adventure that does not necessarily translate smoothly into a reel-life presentation.
This film’s hero is Edward Snowden, whose whistleblowing efforts alerted the world to the nastier aspect of the U.S. government’s surveillance activities. The film clearly believes Snowden is a hero and presents anyone that disagrees as miserable idiot. (President Obama is seen in news clip sneering about Snowden as being “a hacker,” while shrill sound clips of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump speaking negatively about Snowden are also thrown in.)
Part of the problem with “Snowden” is that it has to cover a complex depth and scope of cutting-edge technology and an extraordinary high-tech bureaucracy where Snowden had initially thrived before becoming disillusioned, but Stone is either uninterested or unable to properly frame this nightmare. Instead, he goes overboard by trying to humanize Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as a flag-waving patriot while giving a great deal of screen time to his relationship with too-sexy would-be photographer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Alas, from their obligatory-cutesy initial meeting on a Washington date (where she immediately pegs him as a spy) to a series of relationship fights that makes them seem like candidates for Dr. Phil’s intervention (she comes across like a whiny gold-digger while he comes across as jealous and evasive), the love story often feels like an irritating intrusion into what should have been a more serious film. And this aspect of the film offers one unintentionally funny moment when Lindsay’s complains that Snowden only spends his days working and playing video games – a few glimpses of Gordon-Levitt’s shirtless gym-toned torso suggest that Snowden was actually spending more time with Crossfit than coding.
It also doesn’t help that Stone imagines the U.S. spy community as a bunch of bitchy and creepy divas who are constantly elbowing each other for credit and control. This brings about a degree of unfortunate overacting, most egregiously with Rhys Ifans as Snowden’s oleaginous mentor. (A scene were Ifans’ character communicates with Snowden via a wall-sized videoconference screen is ridiculous for its sheer overkill.) But whereas the spies are the stock-villain bad guys, the reporters that broke Snowden’s stories are personality-free good guys: Melissa Leo’s filmmaker Laura Poitras and Zack Quinto’s reporter Glenn Greenwald exist solely to admire Snowden’s bravery, while Tom Wilkinson reporter Ewan MacAskill keeps calling Snowden “laddie” in a thick brogue to remind the viewer of his character’s Scottish roots.
Still, “Snowden” deserves respect for attempting to offer a user-friendly consideration of what Snowden tried to achieve in calling attention to the U.S. government’s use of spying technology on its citizens and allies. While Stone does not go into great detail on many issues and revelations generated by Snowden, he makes a credible effort to list as many as possible.
But when the real Snowden turns up at the end of the film, he speaks with a sincerity and maturity that is nowhere to be seen in Stone’s vision or Gordon-Levitt’s impersonation. If “Snowden” serves any worthwhile purpose, it would be to offer an entertaining introduction to the Snowden story, which could be explored with more satisfactory results via the Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” or Greenwald’s brilliantly riveting book “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State,” which should be required reading for every American.