After injury kills his dream of being a soldier, computer whizz Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds success as a government intelligence agent — and love with a spirited photographer (Shailene Woodley). But when he learns about the NSA’s secret global surveillance, he risks it all to reveal the truth.
The phrase “too soon” doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to big-screen adaptations of politically charged global scandals. Not long after WikiLeaks’ name-making Guantanamo Bay files, Benedict Cumberbatch was slipping on a Malfoy wig for The Fifth Estate. Leonardo DiCaprio has already optioned an unpublished book on Volkswagen’s 2015 emissions cover-up. And now — just three years after Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations — here comes Oliver Stone’s thrillingly relevant biopic of the government analyst-turned-whistleblower.
A capably delivered thriller that’s as powerful as it is pertinent.
We open in 2013, in Hong Kong, as journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) nervily await a rendezvous with Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who arrives with all manner of digital secrets to spill. Next, we flashback to 2004, where Snowden is a medically discharged special forces recruit who washes up in the CIA’s cyber branch, and an intercut timeline helps thread a link between the past and present, hopping back and forth between Snowden’s career and his twitchy current existence, hiding in his hotel room.
The time-jumps are a simple but effective narrative device and Snowden’s former life — as a pro-Dubya patriot — only adds to the emotional heft of his decision to reveal the Big Brother-ish extent of the US government’s spying. Yes, his global tour — encompassing governmental jobs in mainland America, Switzerland, Japan and Hawaii — can occasionally feel jarringly episodic. But the foregrounding of his tempestuous relationship with photographer girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) acts as a solid narrative spine and casts Snowden as something of an alternative love story.
Not that it’s light on sweaty-palmed drama or provocative politics. Late on, Stone expertly wrings tension from little more than a loading bar and a hidden SD card. And although the director’s illustrative tools are occasionally blunt — one of Snowden’s first epiphanies concerns a supposedly inactive laptop camera filming a Muslim woman removing her veil — his anger at the rapaciousness of post-9/11 surveillance comes out eloquently.
He’s assisted by an in-form cast, too. Woodley lights up every scene, Rhys Ifans sells his quietly sinister father figure and Gordon-Levitt grows into a performance that initially seems distractingly mannered. The real-life Snowden, still an exile in Russia, was consulted heavily and a third act decision to show off this admittedly impressive access seems ill-judged.
In fact, there’s a pervading sense that potentially interesting avenues (Snowden’s self-interest, the consequences of his international fame) are ignored in favour of an overwhelmingly heroic, almost saintly, character arc. But, ultimately, this can’t detract from a capably delivered thriller that’s as powerful as it is pertinent.
Aided by a dialled-down Gordon-Levitt, Stone skilfully demystifies one of the Obama era’s most compelling stories. It’s a welcome return to form for a cinematic sleeping giant.