Oliver Stone movies are best described by their volume levels. There are those at a “Spinal Tap” eleven – a register so loud that a new setting is required to describe it. Most of the films by which he’s made his name belong to that category: the deafening, bombastic “Natural Born Killers,” “JFK,” and “Any Given Sunday.” Then there are his quiet films, so understated that they sound like elevator music or an irritatingly audible whisper: “W.,” “World Trade Center,” even his late-to-the party sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” Only his best films – Goldilock’s all-elusive “just-rights” – trumpet their truth in clear, round tones without overselling their case. Think “Nixon,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Wall Street,” and now “Snowden,” an adaptation of The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena. Should the seventy-year-old writer/director choose to stop working now (and he shows no such inclination), this feature about the world’s most famous whistle blower would be a fitting swan song to his career.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who became a fugitive by exposing the slippery slope that is the new American surveillance state. With his sweet eyes and acrobatic grace (he always seems poised to break out in a dance number, as in “500 Days of Summer”), Gordon-Levitt may seem an unlikely candidate to embody Snowden’s robotic remove. But clad in the techie uniform of gray tee shirt and grayer pallor, the actor disappears quickly into the role, and his old-soul gaze helps explain how he landed Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), Snowden’s hottie girlfriend who plays a big role in Stone’s (largely successful) attempt to humanize this man about whom everyone has many opinions and few facts.
We first meet Snowden in the Hong Kong hotel room featured in the documentary “Citizenfour,” in which he leaks top-secret NSA documents while giving a real-time, real-life interview to director Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Even the doc radiates teeth-chattering suspense – it didn’t just win an Oscar for its social value – and Stone ups the ante just enough, casting Melissa Leo as a dead-ringer for Poitras, livewire Zachary Quinto as a Greenwald agog, a Rubik’s cube as Edward’s gumshoe prop, and a rabbit’s hole of reflecting mirrors to tease out the claustrophobia of the small room. It’s just crisp enough, which is how you can describe this entire feature.
Doubling back to 2004, we learn how Edward became Snowden – how the mild-mannered neo-con morphed into either our era’s greatest hero or worst traitor, depending on how you interpret his actions. Inspired by 9/11/01 (there’s a lot of September 11-inflected cinema going on right around now), he joins the U.S. Army Reserves, but when a pair of broken legs bounces him out of basic training, he opts to defend his country on a plane that’s more natural for him: CIA cybersecurity. There, mentored by agency bigwig Corbin O’Brian (an unusually noir-ish Rhys Ifans) and grizzled deskwarmer Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage, scenery-chewing as ever), the systems analyst quickly emerges as the cream of the crop. Or is that cream of the crap?
Pretty early in his CIA tenure, the young geekocrat begins to smell something rotten, though he’s seduced by the status and cash that comes in handy when he meets Mills, a pole-dancing, nerdazon variation on the manic pixie dream girl. (Since manic pixie dream girls don’t, like, work and Stone is unchecked old-school when it comes to the ladies, apparently we’re meant to assume Snowden will provide for her.) The two break up and reunite with a rhythm that echoes the analyst’s growing uneasiness with the human rights violations he witnesses and in some cases commits as he climbs up the ladder of the national security infrastructure. (He quits the CIA but remains in the loop of that agency and the NSA as a highly valued independent programmer.)
If this film has a weakness – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – it’s that there’s too much Shailene. Historically I’ve adored her winsome ways, but it’s time she stretched her wings beyond husky-voiced “cool girls”; given how much screen time she’s allotted here, her Mills is an inexcusably two-dimensional plot-propeller. (The script doesn’t help.) What does work is how carefully Stone makes his case. We never dig too deeply into Snowden’s psychological underpinnings – I’m guessing this was a prerequisite to his participation with the project – but are shown how his keen sense of justice is increasingly affronted by the data-gathering, the voyeurism, the techno-pathology that is business as usual in the intelligence community. A scene in which he’s the only person who emotionally responds to a set of Middle East drone attacks committed in a bland control room sears, as does a stand-off with O’Brian, who looms like Big Brother on a big screen during a videochat.
It’s moments like these that Stone does best. Tapping into his unparalleled ability to connect dots in day-glo colors, he drops in visual Easter eggs amid the expository even-handedness necessary to build out the legitimacy of the analyst’s alienation. The director also can’t resist highlighting our complicity – how the cyber-narcissism that passes as normal social exchange has helped the NSA erect Pandora’s cage – though it is unfortunate he uses Mill’s online self-infatuation to do so. Frivolity, thy name is woman!
At the core of all of Oliver Stone’s work lives an examination of patriotism – of what it means to be a true American; of what we should and should not do in the name of our powerful, powerfully fucked-up nation. When he nails it, as with this film, he ushers us into a deeper understanding not only of where we’ve been but where we may fall in the future. It says it all that, at the end of this procedural drama, Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real-life Snowden, who then wheels onto a stage via the robot that is now his lecture-circuit trademark. This movie is still being made, Stone reminds us, and Snowden now participates in it via the technology he both fears and facilitates. If Vietnam veteran/activist Ron Kovic was Stone’s twentieth-century patron patriot, Snowden is a twenty-first-century patriot martyr – a man who loves his country enough to give up access to it.
This was originally published on Signature.