“Snowden” features an ominous soundtrack, foreboding government characters and camera angles that look as if the director of the film was actively spying on his actors during production. Even a spaghetti colander is shot with maximum suspicion.
In other words, Oliver Stone is back where he belongs. It’s unfair to play the “his best film since …” card, because Stone’s cinematic output is so polarizing. Just know that he has a subject he cares about, a budget to execute his vision, and the kinetic scriptwriting matched with narrative momentum that made films such as “Salvador,” “Platoon” and “JFK” so memorable.
“Snowden” is not quite as excellent as that holy trinity, but it comes very close. Stone and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald compensate for the lack of traditional action with a coherent web of escalating menace. The only guns discharged by major characters in the film are used to shoot at pheasants. But to leave the theater is to feel the exhaustion of a dozen firefights.
The film begins like a Jason Bourne movie, minus the punching and car chases. CIA employee-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets a trio of journalists in a Hong Kong mall and rushes them to a hotel room, where he tells his story. Then we go into flashback, from Snowden’s early military training, to his rise in the CIA, to the crisis of conscience that led to his decision to copy and leak classified National Security Agency information to journalists.
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This story itself was more journalistically told in Laura Poitras’ Academy Award-winning documentary “Citizenfour,” a fact that Stone seems to acknowledge, making Poitras a key character and leaving a clear trail for viewers to find her work.
Stone instead goes for an argument-building hyper-reality, clearly meant to shame his critics on the right and test the conspiratorial limits of his potential allies on the left. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton arguably come off much worse in “Snowden” than George W. Bush.
In the movie, sympathetic CIA middle managers offer warnings to Snowden wrapped in riddles. (“Sometimes the more you look, the less you see.”) When it’s time to confront a superior, Snowden’s CIA mentor (a sinister and almost unrecognizable Rhys Ifans) appears on a TV screen that looks as if it was brought in from Times Square. Kylo Ren’s conversations with Supreme Leader Snoke in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” were less grandiose.
There are no patriot-or-traitor debates in this film. Snowden is an unquestionable hero in Stone’s telling, seemingly guided by swelling strings or the staccato drums of a military salute every time he makes a decision to betray his employer.
None of the above makes “Snowden” an outstanding film. Stone does that, with his ability to keep everything coherent despite the fast pace, to give potentially mundane circumstances the feel of a good heist film and to make the stakes clear at all times – in the plot of the film, and then in a message to the audience as the credits roll. It’s a liberal companion to Clint Eastwood’s almost equally strong “American Sniper,” both movies that chose a certain point of view over uncertain hand-wringing. The think pieces and punditry that rebut these films become part of the show.
The actors were probably weaned on Stone’s work, and buy in wholeheartedly. Gordon-Levitt is solid, adopting a deeper voice and a sober quirkiness as Snowden, and it never feels like an imitation. Nicolas Cage and Keith Stanfield offer depth as CIA allies. Artists as accomplished as Ben Chaplin and Joely Richardson show up for single scenes. There’s a uniformity to the urgency on screen, as if Stone injected everyone with a little bit of Al Pacino’s DNA before the film started.
The only real structural misstep is the overemphasis on Snowden’s romantic relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), which begins as a lens into his motivations, then becomes repetitive. At 140 minutes, “Snowden” is rarely a slog, but there are a few minutes to be shaved here.
Our screening for critics was preceded by a message from Stone, suggesting that audience members throw out their cellphone, before segueing into a joke about keeping devices silent during the movie. By the time the credits arrive, with the real Edward Snowden included, the idea of abandoning the grid seems a lot more serious.
Moviegoers will love or hate Oliver Stone and his politics until the end of time. With well-made movies such as “Snowden,” though, his skill as a filmmaker becomes much harder for the detractors to debate.
☆☆☆1/2 (out of 4 stars)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto
Directed by: Oliver Stone