You’d be hard-pressed to unearth many opinion pieces or talk show transcripts about Edward Snowden in which the self-appointed government whistleblower isn’t pasted with one of two labels:
Let’s just say for now “Snowden” is clearly and unapologetically in one of those two camps.
Just as Clint Eastwood was a slam-dunk of a choice to direct “Sully,” who better (or in some eyes, worse) than master filmmaker/agitator/conspiracy theorist/rebel Oliver Stone (“Born on the Fourth of July,” “JFK,” “Nixon,” “W.,”) to helm the story of the twentysomething techno-whiz who leaked thousands of classified documents in the name of exposing the NSA for trampling on the rights of its citizens?
Credit Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who has rather quietly been building a resume for the last decade as one of our most interesting young actors) for taking some big risks — first, for even playing Snowden, and also for attempting to mimic Snowden’s unique cadence as well as his physical appearance.
The voice in particular could have sunk the performance, and indeed there are few unsettling moments early in the film in which Gordon-Levitt as Snowden sounds a little bit like a cartoon character. But Gordon-Levitt is such a natural the voice becomes a non-factor, and his performance is so good we can understand and empathize with most of the moves Snowden makes — even if we’re not buying every chapter of the hagiography Stone is selling.
“Snowden” begins in classic fashion, near the end of the story, with the 29-year-old Snowden secretly meeting with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and print journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) in Hong Kong.
They sequester themselves in a hotel room, Snowden begins to tell his story — and we flash back to his early days, first as a true patriot and Special Forces recruit who washes out after sustaining a gruesome injury, and then as a once-in-a-generation talent quickly rising through the ranks of the CIA.
Rhys Ifans, sporting quite the silver hairdo, an unexplained facial scar and a facial expression permanently set to “glowering,” gnaws with great might on the scenery as Corbin O’Brian, who tells Snowden he has “many titles” at the CIA and takes Snowden under his wing. (This is the kind of unsubtle movie where the wise mentor and the eager protégé go hunting together — and literally dine on the grilled carcasses of their prey.)
In sometimes rambling fashion (“Snowden” clocks in at 2 hours and 18 minutes, not all of those minutes germane to the central story), “Snowden” follows three main story lines:
Edward growing quickly (and not very quietly) disillusioned with his government’s surveillance tactics; Edward’s on-and-off romance with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and the scenes set in 2013, with the journalists pleading with their boss to post the documents before someone busts down the door, confiscates the files and hauls Edward away.
The scenes with Edward and Lindsay are by far the least involving, through no fault of Gordon-Levitt and the talented Woodley. There simply isn’t much punch to the writing — and at times we get sequences so unnecessary it’s a wonder they didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. (Why are we watching Lindsay teaching a class in strip aerobics?)
Stone loves to pepper his films with familiar faces, and “Snowden” is no exception. Nicolas Cage pops up as an old-school CIA spook that takes a liking to Snowden and even gets to say, “The kid did it!” while swigging a beer when the documents are leaked. Timothy Olyphant plays an oily, conscience-free field operative who opens Snowden’s eyes to the way things work in the real world.
At times Stone hurts his own cause, whether it’s a scene where Snowden’s beloved mentor O’Brian appears on a giant screen during a Facetime call, a la Big Brother, or the irritating score that swells up as if Snowden is Roy Hobbs in “The Natural,” swinging for the fences because he loves his country, gosh dang it.
“Snowden” works best when it’s just Edward and the three journalists in that hotel room, sweating it out, or when we see the pattern of events that led him to commit acts that exposed the shocking practices of our own government but also quite possibly created serious security breaches.
This week, Edward Snowden lobbied President Obama for a pardon. (Good luck with that.) Stone’s take on “Snowden” would certainly make the case for the government to drop the charges — but as the movie makes clear at the start, this is a dramatization of events.
It’s one big “hero” sandwich.
Open Road presents a film directed by Oliver Stone and written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald. Rated R (for language and some sexuality/nudity). Running time: 138 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.