By Kirby Davis, Staff Writer
“Snowden” raises a lofty question — should Americans sacrifice privacy for security?
The answer, in writer-director Oliver Stone’s mind, is clearly absolutely not.
The real Edward Snowden is currently residing in Moscow, Russia, pursuing asylum in over 20 other countries. Returning home isn’t an option, as the U.S. has slapped him with two charges under the 1917 Espionage Act, as well as theft of government property, for leaking classified documents.
Snowden offered these documents, regarding the National Security Agency (NSA), to a group of journalists in 2013. The Guardian, The Washington Post and The New York Times later published the information, detailing the NSA’s global and domestic surveillance programs.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the titular character as a deep-voiced, socially stunted geek who doesn’t drink or smoke — computers, he says, are his only vice.
“Snowden” follows his path for 10 years, from failing military training camp in 2004 (he’s forced to drop out after breaking both of his legs) to becoming an NSA whistleblower.
The film jumps back and forth between 2013 Hong Kong, where Snowden covertly meets with three journalists representing The Guardian, and his past life as a government security contractor. He slowly turns against his employers as he watches them violate citizens’ privacy and disregard constitutional law.
“Snowden’s” cast is solid, but it can’t save this muddled production. According to Snowden’s family, Gordon-Levitt nailed the part, and Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto are subtly intimidating as two of the reporters urging Snowden to divulge what he knows about national security.
I haven’t been impressed by a performance of Shailene Woodley’s since her raw, emotional turn as George Clooney’s rebellious daughter in 2011’s “The Descendants” (remember when she cried underwater?), but she might be the best thing about this film.
She’s not given much to work with, playing Snowden’s photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Woodley’s mostly there to represent the majority of indifferent Americans, and to deliver the classic “I’ve got nothing to hide” line regarding illicit NSA webcam monitoring.
Still, she’s got tantalizing chemistry with Gordon-Levitt, and she humanizes this overwhelmingly broad story.
The film does admit to being a “dramatization” of the real-life ordeal of Edward Snowden. But Chris Inglis, a former NSA deputy director, told NPR earlier this month that he feels the film still oversteps its storytelling boundaries.
He complained that it flagrantly misrepresents both the NSA in general and Snowden’s specific role in the organization, which in reality was not quite as significant.
“Dramatization to me means you add the occasional exclamation point,” Inglis said. “But you don’t tell a story that is fiction.”
“Snowden” is dramatic, but everything about it is almost offensively heavy-handed. When one NSA official discusses potential jobs for Snowden, he’s cloaked in a traditionally villainous black trench coat and hat. When Snowden actually transfers NSA information to a USB stick at work, those files are conspicuously labeled things like “Constitutional violations.”
The film puts itself in an awkward position. It’s not quite gritty enough to be grounded in reality but not glossy enough to be a high-stakes spy thriller — it’s somewhere in the middle.
This may have worked if it were a ’90s action flick (like the 1998 Will Smith government surveillance thriller, “Enemy of the State”), but here it’s just a convoluted jumble of moral standoffs, inner turmoil on Snowden’s part and disjointed editing.
Oliver Stone’s previous films (such as “Born on the Fourth of July” and “JFK”) don’t suggest that this one would take the government’s side, especially on such a polarizing issue. But again, it’s heavy-handed even for Stone.
This film is built on the great freedom vs. security debate, but it doesn’t give moviegoers the chance to decide which side they’re on. It force-feeds you the image of Edward Snowden as a hero of modern patriotism, crusading against evil NSA agents who want to spy on your every move and destroy anyone who gets in the way of them doing so.
If you want a glorified propaganda video in Edward Snowden’s favor, with special guest appearances by Nicolas Cage as his jaded CIA mentor, by all means, watch this movie. If you want a compelling, exciting film about overreaching government surveillance, check out “Enemy of the State” instead.