The only safe place is on the run.
In his cleverly-constructed edutainment The Big Short, director Adam McKay took a complex, potentially tedious (but undeniably important) subject and made it palatable for mainstream audiences by filtering it through the lens of bro comedy. In Snowden, director Oliver Stone attempts to achieve something similar via a different path: making complex, potentially tedious (but undeniably important) subject matter palatable for mainstream audiences by turning it into a feverish paranoia thriller/relationship drama.
In this case, Stone doesn’t have to manufacture nearly as many facts as usual, as the real-life story is bonkers enough. It’s more or less a perfect match of material and filmmaker: a man’s noble effort to uncover a sinister conspiracy that can be traced to the very highest levels of government. Granted, there’s more than one legitimate angle to the Snowden story, but Stone isn’t really the sort of filmmaker you go to for a fair-and-balanced examination of a complicated situation. He’s the sort of filmmaker who takes a specific position and digs in from there, and in this case it leads to something interesting and sort of unique: an angry hagiography.
In broad strokes, Snowden is the story of a patriotic idealist who becomes disillusioned with the system he’s a part of. In the early scenes, Edward (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Dark Knight Rises) wants nothing more than to serve his country with honor. He joins the Army, but fractures his tibia during basic training and is told he needs to seek out a desk job. So, he applies for a position at the CIA, and quickly asserts himself as one of the organization’s most talented young recruits. However, as his star rises, he finds himself placed in increasingly morally compromising positions, asked to do things that arguably violate the law and certainly violate his conscience. Still, he’s a good soldier and does the job he’s been asked to do… for a while, anyway.
Meanwhile, we follow the ups and downs of Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay Mills, whose liberal ideology inspires a handful of (somewhat clumsily-written) political debates with the conservative Edward. Stone devotes a considerable chunk of the film’s running time to this material, which gets actually gets fairly interesting once the director starts digging into the many challenges Edward’s crisis of conscience places on their relationship. This material also leads to one of the film’s most brazenly Stone-ish sequences, as a sex scene is interrupted by Edward’s paranoia about whether the government is spying on them via his wife’s laptop camera.
For my money, Stone’s recent output has been a lot less interesting than his ’80s and ’90s work, so it’s not really saying much to call this his best effort in years. Still: it’s his best effort in years, and marks the first time in a while that we’ve seen Oliver Stone, Passionate Provocateur turn up to deliver his take on something (World Trade Center and W. both felt like unpersuasive attempts to puncture his own image, though the latter is a much better film than the former). It’s one of Stone’s feverish conspiracy theory movies, but this time the key details are actually backed up by hard journalism (and an interview with Snowden and Stone included on the Blu-ray disc cautiously suggests that some of the little “manufactured” moments – such as Snowden using a Rubik’s Cube to smuggle information out of the country – are possibly-real details that Snowden can neither confirm nor deny).
Comparisons to Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour are inevitable, particularly considering that Poitras is a key supporting character in the film (played by Melissa Leo, The Fighter). Snowden doesn’t come close to capturing the white-knuckle tension of that film (the doc benefits a certain “holy crap, I can’t believe I’m actually watching this happen” sensation), but it does build on that film’s sense of bewildered political fury. Still, the top priorities of two works are a bit different: while the Poitras doc plays as a scathing indictment of the N.S.A.’s overreach and the Obama administration’s complicity, Stone’s movie is more focused on the courage of the man who betrayed the U.S. government in the name of serving the American people.
Gordon-Levitt’s performance is one of those turns that initially seems a little distracting (the voice is so… distinctive) but eventually becomes real enough that you stop seeing the actor and start seeing the character. Gordon-Levitt is good at playing the character’s building anxiety and self-doubt, and really delivers when the film needs him to. Woodley’s performance is solid, too, and she seems determined to prevent Lindsay from merely being seen as “the girl.” The supporting cast is a fairly impressive collection of recognizable faces: Rhys Ifans (Pirate Radio) oozes authoritarian menace as Snowden’s direct superior, Timothy Olyphant brings his Justified smirk to a few scenes of CIA rule-bending, Zachary Quinto (Star Trek Beyond) is perfectly-cast as the righteous/self-righteous Glen Greenwald and Nicolas Cage (National Treasure) gets to chew the scenery in a small role as Snowden’s mentor.
Snowden (Blu-ray) gets an exceptional 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. The film’s glossy digital cinematography looks sharp and boasts impressive detail, though there are times when Stone employs various effects that distort the imagery (jittery slow-motion, heavy desaturation, etc.). Depth is strong and flesh tones look natural. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is a pretty rich mix, successfully melding the dialogue and some fairly busy sound design with a (perhaps slightly too on-the-nose) score by Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters. Supplements include an audio commentary with Stone (note: this is not included on the disc, but only accompanies the digital copy – a lousy trend, in my estimation), a 40-minute Q&A with Stone, Snowden (appearing via video stream, naturally), Gordon-Levitt and Woodley (hosted by critic Matt Zoller Seitz), a throwaway four-minute featurette, deleted scenes, a DVD Copy and a digital copy.
Whatever you may think of Snowden as an individual or the legitimacy of the actions that he took, there’s no question that the truths he uncovered are incredibly damning: a confirmation that Big Brother is, in fact, watching. Stone’s movie doesn’t exactly offer an impartial perspective on the man, but it’s a compelling (if sometimes overcooked) watch that ranks as one of the director’s best 21st-century efforts.