Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Edward Joseph Snowden in Oliver Stone’s biopic on the infamous U.S. government contractor who, in 2013, leaked stunning, classified information from the National Security Agency regarding the organization’s monitoring of the personal lives of billions of people across the globe.Last year, Gordon-Levitt played tightrope master Philippe Petit in “The Walk”, complete with a strong French accent. As Snowden, Gordon-Levitt digs deep in his throat in an effort to mimic Snowden’s voice, and he sports glasses and a short haircut to capture the look. And as was the case with “The Walk”, the majority of time in “Snowden” is devoted to setting-up the climactic event that most people are already very familiar with.
And that familiarity may be why Stone chose to make this such a human story - much of it told as flashbacks. We get a solid background of Snowden’s early life - pre-CIA/NSA, including his up-and-down relationship with girlfriend Lindsay (played by Shailene Woodley). These scenes allow “Snowden” to have a conventional feel, but that’s not a negative - because Gordon-Levitt and Woodley do make a believable couple.
There are a host of supporting characters. Rhys Ifans is menacing as Snowden’s professor. Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto play the trio of journalists who break the story (though Quinto is the only one who gets a showcase scene). And Nicolas Cage (you haven’t heard that name in a while) has a small role in his first “big” movie in years as one of Snowden’s early mentors.
One of the biggest problems with “Snowden” is that - even though there are some moments early-on that attempt to demonstrate just how revolutionary Snowden’s discoveries were - by the end, there’s no intensity behind the actions of the young whistleblower publishing the information and becoming a national criminal. Stone’s broken narrative structure undermines his own efforts for a suspenseful final act.Stone also includes a handful of unnecessary visual tricks. And I don’t quite understand why he chose to finish-out the film as he did, taking a documentary approach with the final five minutes, including a jarring final scene better suited for the 2014 Oscar-winning Snowden documentary, “Citizenfour”.
Clearly this is a one-sided view of a highly controversial figure. But it does do a better job with similar subject matter than the 2013 WikiLeaks drama, “The Fifth Estate".