It was probably only a matter of time before Oliver Stone turned his sights to Edward Snowden.
The director is drawn to issues of American Empire, which makes the subject matter of “Snowden” made to order. Despite the unevenness that’s come to epitomize Stone’s work for years, this time he’s up to the task.
Stone leaves behind overheated filmmaking for a quietly compelling, Hollywood-ized story of a computer whiz-kid motivated by 9/11 to stop terrorists. Snowden rises quickly in his 20s through the intelligence ranks, including surveillance-related work as an employee for the CIA and a contractor with the NSA. Slowly awakening to what’s happening, he blows the whistle on a massive spying network occurring at home and abroad that the public has been kept in the dark about.
The film succeeds in revealing, in stages and in understandable terms, how the widespread spying works (yes, present tense intended). That includes the sheer magnitude of its reach (look for the Buffalo reference), and how easily the technology makes it to entrap innocent people, or as we see in the Middle East, blow them up in war zones as acceptable collateral damage.
Stone uses Snowden’s hotel room meeting in Hong Kong with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (a maternal Melissa Leo), along with two journalists, as the vehicle to tell the former intelligence officer’s backstory, and how he came to copy and leak thousands of classified NSA documents.
When Snowden first appears on-screen, on his way up to the hotel meeting, a backpack tossed over his T-shirt, he looks more like a cross between a college student and Harry Potter than someone soon to become the country’s most significant whistleblower.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s understated role as Snowden presents the protagonist with a quiet intensity, strong moral compass and, initially, an unquestioning regard for U.S. institutions. Anxious to serve his country, Snowden struggles with the physical demands of Army boot camp before a fall from his bunk bed ends his active military career before it’s started. That leads him into what the film posits as the 21st century battlefield – cyberspace.
As Snowden moves up the ranks, it’s under the watchful eye of Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), a war-hardened spymaster, CIA recruiter and instructor who sees the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as little more than a diversion for the computer battles to come with Russia, China and Iran.
Snowden befriends a onetime computer whiz (Nicolas Cage) relegated to the sidelines, and learns from easy-go-lucky Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer) how a secret CIA program is essentially a search engine that enters people’s lives through laptops and cellphones. Snowden then finds out the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a supposed firewall against abuse, is little more than a rubber stamp.
Snowden’s story also revolves around Lindsay Mills, his girlfriend who’s played wonderfully by Shailene Woodley. They meet online, and despite her more liberal, free-spirited ways, quickly bond.
Lindsay tries to accept the restraints Snowden’s job places on them, but his inability to talk about what he does puts added strains on their relationship, as well as his health. The realization the U.S. spies on twice as many Americans as Russians only adds to his concerns.
In the film’s chilliest moment, a terrifying-looking O’Brian speaks through a giant screen to Snowden when he’s going through a difficult period with Lindsay, telling him – through spying on her – that she’s not cheating on him.
The film pauses at the end to celebrate the real Snowden, although Stone here can’t help himself from going too far. But even as the closing credits reveal reforms initiated in the aftermath of Snowden’s leaks, we’re reminded that the fugitive’s status is in limbo, and the film’s story is still to be written.
For Stone, it’s another milestone in a storied if uneven career. The director of such important films as “JFK,” which validated the Kennedy assassination conspiracy, and “Platoon,” which indicted the Vietnam War but not the soldiers who fought it, shows he’s back on his game.
3.5 (out of four stars)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Director: Oliver Stone
Running time: 134 minutes
Rating: R for language and some sexuality/nudity.
The Lowdown: The NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques are leaked to the public by one of the agency’s employees, Edward Snowden, in the form of thousands of classified documents distributed to the press.