Review: Solid Performances Fail to Save Snowden Biopic

By Noah Orent, Contributing Writer

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Snowden movie
“Snowden” first released in theaters on Sept. 16.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore (Flickr)

Three journalists sit in a Hong Kong hotel room with an individual who possesses inside information, documenting illegal wiretapping practices. One of the journalists turns on a shoulder camcorder, asking the man to introduce himself. He looks into the camera and quietly declares, “My name is Edward Joseph Snowden.”

In his latest feature film, “Snowden,” Academy Award-winning writer and director Oliver Stone attempts to recreate the events that led up to the most significant leak of classified information in political history, but ends up creating a movie that barely manages to achieve its full potential.

Based on Luke Harding’s “The Snowden Files” and Anatoly Kucherena’s “Time of the Octopus,” the film stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden, a United States Army Ranger whose career is cut short by a debilitating leg injury.

Determined to serve his country, Snowden joins the ranks of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), only to become progressively disillusioned after discovering the extent of the government’s plans to prevent the next Sept. 11 attack.
As a director, Stone is no stranger when it comes to making movies that revolve around controversial issues – be it the Vietnam War or the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination — and he focuses on young idealists who slowly start to question authority.

Much like Stone’s past successes, “Snowden” leaves audience members asking questions about the lengths of power and secrecy amidst the backdrop of political history’s most defining moments. Unlike his past successes, however, Stone chooses to focus on Snowden’s personal issues instead of the political issues. As a result, the final product feels less like an espionage thriller and more like a character study.

In addition to the aforementioned criticisms, the cast members struggle to leave a lasting impression. The only exceptions are Gordon-Levitt, whose portrayal of the titular whistleblower is so spot-on that he could almost pass for the real Edward Snowden, and the trio of Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson, who respectively portray documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, freelance journalist Glenn Greenwald and Guardian intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill.

The scenes that follow the quartet, as they film what will become the Academy Award-winning documentary “Citizenfour” are admittedly well-executed, allowing viewers to imagine themselves standing in the box-like hotel room with Snowden as he tells the world his story.

The rest of the cast members, however, come across as caricatures instead of characters. Shailene Woodley is extremely underused as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay, whose constant whining makes it difficult to sympathize with her. Rhys Ifans’ role as CIA recruiter Corbin O’Brian is largely limited to preaching about the importance of mass surveillance, while Nicolas Cage’s performance as former NSA operative Hank Forrester mostly consists of exposition-heavy scenes that have no connection to the plot.

A cameo from the real-life Edward Snowden also fails to serve any purpose and leaves viewers wondering how he even managed to appear in the film.

Despite the unique choice of subject matter, “Snowden” provides a surface-level account of a scandal that shocked a nation on edge and forever changed the world of global surveillance.

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