An actor’s voice can be a make-or-break proposition. Whenever Joseph Gordon-Levitt started speaking to the camera in that insistently jaunty Amelie-meets-Disney French accent in The Walk, the film’s momentum nosedived so fast that it took a few IMAX aerial scenes to recover it. In Snowden, another Oscar-season biopic, Gordon-Levitt plays the eponymous N.S.A. whistleblower whose leak of classified documents unleashed easily some of the most inflammatory political revelations of the past decade. The actor’s meticulously dialed Snowden voice sounds much less rangey and more matter-of-fact than his usual onscreen voice. You feel the painstaking weight of his efforts. It takes some getting used to—but after a while, it works.
The same cannot be said of the rest of Snowden, Oliver Stone’s surprisingly straightforward thriller-love-story and study in agitprop. Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald penned the screenplay based on books by Anatoly Kucherena and Luke Harding. As played with commitment and insight by Gordon-Levitt, Snowden comes off as a well-trained soldier, computer whiz kid and government drone, and maybe even a decent, patriotic and slightly manic guy. Outraged by the massive and secretive surveillance programs being perpetrated on average Americans by the U.S. government, Snowden sought to expose to the world its deeply creepy and disturbing underbelly.
Such a complex character and such rich, provocative material ought to be solidly in the wheelhouse of Stone or, at least, the Stone who gave us JFK, Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon. But here, Stone has handled a time bomb in a frustratingly flat, old-fashioned style. That’s a pity, because Snowden’s exploits cry for the visual flair of, say, a David Fincher or Darren Aronofsky, married with the agile, complex structuring of Stone’s best work.
Snowden takes a binary approach, giving us the protagonist’s tortured backstory (with unsubtle performances by Nicolas Cage and Rhys Ifans as his CIA instructors) alongside a portrayal of the fugitive Snowden hunkered down in a secret room in Hong Kong with two journalists (Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson) and brilliant documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). In fact, for a truly incisive, nuanced portrait of Snowden and his combustible disclosures, do yourself a favor and see Citizenfour, Poitras’ superb 2014 documentary account of the same events. It doesn’t help Snowden that the story has already been filmed to perfection, or that it’s been done by Poitras, whom we repeatedly see fictionalized on screen.
It’s clear throughout the movie’s 134 minutes that Stone is every bit as much in his subject’s corner as Clint Eastwood is in Sully’s (read our review here), although Stone will undoubtedly catch much more heat than Eastwood. What brings down Snowden is its standard, glossy bioflick treatment. Its cheesy music cues sound like something from a decades-old TV movie, and it insists on giving us deliberately awkward “girlfriend” scenes (although well acted by Shailene Woodley) that are clearly meant to warm us up to Snowden.
The movie may do its job explaining the broad outlines of the case to Jack and Jill Public, but it’s in the margins, the underpinnings and the subtleties that the protagonist’s story becomes epic. All that’s missing from Snowden. Old-school firebrand and political rabble-rouser Oliver Stone, please come home. We need you more than ever.