Levitt Shines in Oliver Stone’s Snowden

Oliver Stone returns for a scathing critique of US surveillance methods in his dramatised depiction of whistle blower Edward Snowden. Despite a strong lead performance, it lacks the political punch one would expect. 

Joseph Gordon Levitt transforms himself into the controversial figure of Edward Snowden. Source: Nerdist

The film begins with a journalist and a documentary filmmaker meeting a mysterious man in a mall. The contact claims to have classified information on illegal wiretapping practices by US intelligence agencies. He refuses to give his identity and only states that the point of identification will be a rubix cube. When they eventually establish contact, he takes them to a hotel in Hong Kong where he intends to expose the truth that the USA government is keeping away from its citizens and the world. This may sound like the idea for an amazing thriller, but in June 2013, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras did exactly that; meeting with intelligence agent Edward Snowden.

He has been called many things. Traitor. Whistleblower. Hero. Patriot. Whatever your thoughts on Snowden, it is pretty clear that Oliver Stone falls into the latter category. Presented as an intellectual who feels it is his duty to expose these morally questionable operation of the US government to the world, the film Snowden is clearly very supportive of his actions and continues a trend of Stone’s to criticise the corruption of the nation that he once fought for in the jungles of Vietnam. Such an influential figure in recent American history seemed like the perfect fit for Stone’s eye for creating political discourse in his filmography, so it is disappointing to find a film that is so average in its delivery. 

Shailene Woodley plays Snowden’s sweet girlfriend Lindsay. Source Credit: Gizmodo

What is not average is the lead actor in a performance that will certainly garner Oscar buzz. Joseph Gordon Levitt completely transforms himself into the controversial figure through physical appearance, mannerisms and most astonishingly, his speech. Levitt constantly rises over the script in delivering a sympathetic and ultimately tragic characterisation of Snowden. Highly respected by his superiors for his intellect, Snowden’s journey from patriotic liberal to wanted American fugitive is believably presented with his pure human motives of wanting to protect his loved ones and the globe. It’s just a shame then that this fascinating characterisation of a real life figure is surrounded by a mediocre film.

Shailene Woodley gives a relatively solid performance as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, having an effective chemistry with Levitt and brings into question how a relationship would be able to operate with a husband losing faith in his occupation and ultimately, his country. The rest of the cast however are relatively forgettable par an incredibly strange brief appearance by Nicholas Cage as Snowden’s mentor.

As a film so clearly (and rightfully) concerned with issues about national security, immoral government conduct and global surveillance, Snowden is surprising in how flat it presents this debate. It never feels thrilling with a very by-the-numbers structure.

It seems unfair to compare Snowden with the Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour that had the camera document the pivotal week of Snowden exposing the classified information while in the confines of a Hong Kong hotel, but this was a nail-biting film . Taking place mostly in one location, it was chilling with the mere ringing of a phone and a fire alarm making everyone cautious.

I suppose it would be difficult to expect Oliver Stone to replicate these intimate thrills when not dealing with the real Snowden on-camera (despite a small appearance by him at the end of the film) and having to cover a much wider range of events, time period and locations, but the script needed to take more risks. A script where very discovery, every decision and every thought of Snowden’s adds to the riveting emotional journey and had a generally important impact on the real-world discussion being had on this fascinating individual. With the upcoming US election, this film could have provided massive heat into the discussion, but ultimately it fizzles out by its conclusion.

In its final form, it has a fantastic lead performance that dominates an average telling of an epic story. Not terrible by any means, but when dealing with Edward Snowden and the interesting political views of Oliver Stone, more was expected.

What were your thoughts on Snowden? Did you feel the NSA whistle-blower wasn’t given the proper cinematic treatment that he deserves? Comment below.