Traitor? Patriot? Hero? Villain? Edward Snowden has been called all of these and more, but I went into Oliver Stone’s new biopic about him fully expecting the iconic filmmaker of such movies as JFK, Nixon, W., Natural Born Killers, Platoon, Born on the Fourth Of July and so many others to take sides. Although Snowden is a largely sympathetic portrayal of the man who blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance program, it is decidedly not one-sided but rather a reasonable account of him and the actions he took that led to him being a man with no country, at least for now. I have a feeling the real Edward Snowden is hoping the reel Edward Snowden sets him up for a pardon.
More so than Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary detailing the tense Hong Kong hotel room interview in which Snowden released his information to the world, I appreciated the background and human factor Stone invests in his version of the hot-button story that just keeps unfolding. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), Snowden star Joseph Gordon-Levitt is right on the money in capturing the determination, passion, insecurity and fragility of this guy. I developed a newfound admiration for Snowden, if nothing else, watching Stone’s and screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald’s take on his story, which admittedly is not a documentary or docudrama but a full-blooded Hollywood movie that also happens to have more on its mind than just entertainment.
But entertain it does, playing out like a suspense thriller in framing the Snowden tale around the shooting of that interview for Poitras’ documentary. Melissa Leo effectively plays that filmmaker, while Zachary Quinto is the super-intense Glen Greenwald, the reporter who interviews him. They do a fine job re-creating what we saw in the documentary, but Stone is just as interested in shedding light on aspects of the man’s life that brought him to that moment. We see flashbacks of his early days and his attempt to make it in the military, which he joined out of a patriotic urge three years after 9/11 but was too slight to survive the training. That leads to the CIA where his quirky nature does not KO a job opportunity when the bosses see his ability with a computer and their need for a warrior in cyberspace, not on the battlefields. (Nicolas Cage turns up in this section with a sharp cameo.) A love story is intervoven, with Shailene Woodley nicely playing Snowden‘s girlfriend, who gets caught up in the madness that ensues when he learns too much about just what the NSA has been doing in its spy programs.
No matter how human a side of Snowden is portrayed here, at least half the audience might not be able to be persuaded that he was anything but a traitor — a guy who inadvertently might have put the America’s security of at risk along with its war on terror and other things. The power of Stone’s new film is that Snowden’s story is not as black and white as it has been made out to be in certain quarters. It’s a movie that does not hammer its own point of view into your head, and that might be its most surprising and welcome attribute. Whatever you think, Stone is back in his wheelhouse attacking topical and urgent material with his usual filmmaking style and substance. The serious movie season is finally upon us!
Producers are Moritz Borman, Eric Kopeloff, Phillip Schulz-Deyle and Fernando Sulichin. Open Road releases the film this Friday following last weekend’s world premiere in Toronto. Snowden is participating not only in its publicity with interviews from Moscow, but he’s in the film as well in a nifty little cameo at the end.
Do you plan to see Snowden? Let us know what you think.