One of the most memorable moments delivered by Oliver Stone's Snowden occurs before the film begins. A public service announcement asking moviegoers to turn off their phones — ostensibly to avoid disturbing fellow theater patrons — is made by the director himself. In a self-referential bit that reflects Stone's 42-year career as a filmmaker, the message turns both humorous and sinister.
Holding up a smartphone and looking directly into the camera, Stone says, "This will be our undoing."
The director surely is poking fun at his own reputation as a conspiracy hound, built through signature films like JFK and Nixon. He's also providing a fitting introduction for Snowden, Stone's biopic of National Security Administration whistleblower Edward Snowden, who exposed the U.S. government's practice of spying and collecting data on its own citizens — all of its citizens — among many other potentially illegal or unconstitutional surveillance programs. As the film illustrates, technology exists right now that can remotely transform any computer or smartphone into a literal window on the user's life.
But Snowden is not about technology. The film hopes to illuminate what Snowden did by revealing why he did it — little of which has been communicated accurately by the American news media. It focuses on Snowden's slow transformation, from a conservative young man who tried to the join the U.S. Army Special Forces to someone willing to risk his life to increase awareness and discussion of his government's secret policies.
That internal shift constitutes most of the action found in the too-long (138-minute) Snowden. The screenplay (written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald) spends much time explaining things that might have been revealed by cinematic means. But those significant flaws are not enough to take the air out of Stone's film.
The director pulls off modest success by emphasizing the human aspects of his subject's tale. Against expectations, the film has a love story at its center. Snowden's longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley, The Fault In Our Stars) is his natural opposite, an artistically inclined free spirit who gradually inspires her partner to question the status quo. Woodley's strong performance makes her character's influence on Snowden appear natural. In the title role, Joseph Gordon-Levitt artfully conveys Snowden's growing internal conflicts and nails his real-life physical presence and mannerisms.
The flamboyant, over-the-top visuals that characterize Stone films such as Natural Born Killers are toned down for Snowden, as if the director took creative cues from his mild-mannered subject. But the 70-year-old Stone really hasn't changed. The visual flourishes pop up intermittently, carefully placed to avoid overwhelming the story or the film's low-key aura. Snowden is the work of a seasoned and still-imaginative filmmaker with a style all his own, if one now tempered by the requirements of subject matter and likely by the passage of time.
It took courage on Stone's part to make Snowden, if only because it's hard to imagine a less commercial subject for a major Hollywood film. To his credit, the film doesn't feel like a work of political activism. Stone seems most interested in raising the level of discourse on critical issues raised by Snowden's actions. Like that opening PSA, the film does issue a warning: Hold leaders accountable for actions taken in your name or pay a heavy price. That is a sentiment currently emanating from both ends of the political spectrum, sincerely or not.