I’m not quite sure if Joseph Gordon-Levitt is purposefully taking biopic roles in which a documentary of the same subject comes out prior (Snowden is to Citizenfour as The Walk is to Man on Wire) and covers it better or it’s pure coincidence. Either way, in both instances he’s fully committed to the role. While Snowden has great moments, there are a lot of deflated scenes that string them together.
The film starts with Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in training to become a member of the Special Forces in the US Army. After breaking his legs, he’s not able to complete training and eventually joins the CIA. From there the film quickly journeys into Snowden’s rise in the intelligence community. He’s a brilliant programmer who catches the eye of Linsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) along the way.
As Snowden’s clearance levels expand, he starts to notice programs that encroach on privacy of people. His moral compass keeps him on the straight and narrow, while many around him either turn a blind eye or have suffered the wrath of speaking up. Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) is one of those mentors, banished to what looks like a high school science/computer lab in the CIA, who serve as a visual as to what happens to those who don’t play by the rules.
With the decision to be quiet or speak in front of him, Snowden chooses to contact documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) to wisely set up a meet in a hotel room in China to give the truth before the media machine can shut him down. This part of the film is where the documentary Citizenfour centered and covered beautifully. Here, it’s not unveiled as smoothly.
Let it be known that Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears Snowden on his shoulders like a rucksack and fights to carry it toward being a film worth seeing. He executes the role with a laser-like focus and care for the character and telling his story. Quinto and Poitras give poignant performances that add to the weight of Snowden’s decision to come forward. Unfortunately, Woodley’s Linsay is forgettable, a character piece placed in the film for conflict with the main character. The pacing of the film, jumping through time, checks off the biopic “must cover” list and director Oliver Stone is able to create the sense of pure paranoia that one would expect to feel in going against the most powerful country in the world.
I don’t think a based on a true story was necessary, and its message is muddled in explaining counter surveillance at times. However, Stone’s film does not shy away from promoting real life document leaker Edward Snowden as an American hero who should be commended, not chastised. Unfortunately, it’s in its slant that the ability to judge for yourself is lost. Which probably wasn’t necessary, because by the end of the first act you already want to turn off your phone and cover your webcam. Excuse me as I close my laptop!