Movies · Reviews

Snowden Review: Calm Paranoia

By  · Published on September 15th, 2016

Movie Review

Snowden is a Calm Paranoia Love Story

Oliver Stone has made the anti-JFK.

If you’ve been doubting the need for a dramatized remake of Citizenfour, you’ll be surprised to learn that Oliver Stone’s Snowden is less the narrative version of that Oscar-winning documentary and more the documentary version of the Captain America movies. Edward Snowden, notorious NSA whistleblower, is portrayed as a boy scout with an old-fashioned patriotic idealism and duty who comes to terms with the dark reality of America in the 21st century. And like the latest Captain America movie, Civil War, this one even ends with its hero and his partner in Russia in a position of self-exile.

Stone has been making a lot of true documentaries lately, and perhaps that has worn off on his work as a self-professed dramatist (as opposed to provocateur). The movie does begin by reenacting some of Citizenfour, featuring Melissa Leo as its director, Laura Poitras, Zachary Quinto as journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden. This continues as a recurring foundational framework ‐ Tom Wilkinson eventually shows up as journalist Ewen MacAskill ‐ showing recreated moments seen in the doc as well as scenes taking place (possibly made up for a narrative device) while Poitras’s camera wasn’t rolling.

The rest of the movie, told in flashback, is what often feels more documentary-like, however, all the way to a finale where the real Snowden makes an appearance to deliver a wrap-up monologue. Most of the scenes come off like information dumps similar to generic talking-head interviews in stiff, conventional nonfiction features, only the words have been turned into dialogue for fairly action-less acted-out sequences. When Snowden goes on his first date with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), she’s a boring liberal mouthpiece for lines like “right now [the US] has blood on its hands” and “I’m questioning our government. That’s what we do in this country.”

For much of the time, Snowden is a very talky picture, to the point where you have to wonder why an audience would prefer this story in this fashion as opposed to watching Citizenfour or the new Alex Gibney feature Zero Days or any other doc dealing with directly related or relevant subject matter. Well, to be fair, the explanations of what Snowden did and beforehand what his conscience couldn’t stand are quite simplified here compared to those other films and to much of the rest of the material out there on this story. Plus in this movie you get to see Snowden’s time as a legitimate spy participating undercover in an overseas mission.

Of course, he’s only like (post-amnesia) Jason Bourne in terms of his moral compass, without all the physical components. It’s actually kind of sad that Citizenfour’s hotel room sequences are a lot more intensely thrilling than anything in the scripted take. But Snowden doesn’t have to be the movie we expect it to be ‐ another Blackhat or The Insider (maybe Michael Mann should have made a competing Snowden biopic?). Stone has instead made a contrasting movie to his own JFK. It’s a calm paranoia thriller. Maybe to reflect the issue that people have become so accustomed to being surveilled?

At the heart of Snowden is a love story, between Edward and Lindsay, and besides being a factual through-line for the plot it’s also interesting for what romantic affairs mean in relation to the conversation of privacy. The otherwise hagiographic portrayal of Snowden allows him one big flaw, and that’s jealousy. The sort that leads to spying on your girlfriend. There’s an irony to the movie being so up in his business, from sex scenes to intense arguments, and displaying not just the never-before-seen Snowden the human but Snowden the human behind doors. He doesn’t even like his picture taken, but we voyeuristically see all of him, vulnerable as can be.

The human side of the Snowden story plays as necessary contrast to the chronicling of his work with the CIA and NSA that would nearly qualify it as a documentary. This is not Stone’s most visually or structurally noteworthy film, only occasionally giving us firecracker moments in contrast with the fireworks displays of his earlier work, including JFK, which also could be said to be doc-like but a more brilliantly constructed example. When there are artful flourishes in this new movie, they’re uninspired, as in Stone’s excessive depictions of Snowden’s perspective during his epileptic seizures and an overt Big Brother bit involving a large-screen video chat.

Snowden still works for the most part, and a lot of it is thanks to Gordon-Levitt’s performance. He brings a likability to the role with his own charms, and he mimics the real Snowden just above doing an impression, to create a character who might be more warmly endearing than is authentic but which is required. His perfection of his subject’s voice isn’t a distraction the way his Philippe Petit is in his other recent doc remake, The Walk. Stone meanwhile has some magical power when it comes to getting us to believe actors resemble the people they’re portraying far more than they actually do.

The Good and Bad Timing of Oliver Stone’s Snowden

Ultimately, it’s not enough. There is a major loose end that needs dramatic closure with characters on screen rather than the title card it receives, and the omission of this simple scene is frankly unforgivable. It’s something that seems unaddressed in favor of that appearance by the real Snowden in the final few minutes. Stone basically makes it clear that while the romantic narrative seemed most important, the more predominant love story at the core of the movie is that of the director and his subject. Or at his subject.

That’s not automatic cause for concern, as Stone also had great devotion to Ron Kovic, whose similar biographical arc is depicted in Born on the Fourth of July. But he also put a lot of time into that project, not by his choice but it probably helped. With Snowden, he “chases the news” in a way he tends to say he dislikes doing and delivers a movie that is more reminiscent of his too-soon George W. Bush biopic W., only from the other extreme of passion, an enamored portrait rather than a caustic one. Stone may claim he’s more interested in the drama, but he can’t hide anything from us.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.