The most dynamic scene of Oliver Stone’s film career—certainly the most electrifyingly bonkers speech he’s ever shot—came in 1991’s JFK. “It’s as old as the crucifixion, a military firing squad,” Donald Sutherland rants, laying out the conspiratorial case for the military-industrial complex assassinating the president. Cutting between Sutherland’s minutes-long monologue and sterling black-and-white footage of generals meeting in smoke-filled rooms, the sequence is a bravura display of paranoid filmmaking; the kind of work that means Stone is still being approached to make movies like Snowden, another tale of conspiracy at the heart of government in theaters this week. So it’s strange that his latest feature feels so devoid of both passion and paranoia.
Snowden is probably the most competent film Stone has made in a decade. It does a perfectly serviceable job retelling the story of Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked classified information about global surveillance programs and sparked an international conversation about government access to information in a digital age. But if you want a deep dive into the Snowden case, there’s already Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s Academy Award-winning documentary that rigorously lays out the Snowden story. The substantial, proven details that drive the story of Snowden—the fact that the government can and has been spying on people through their cameras, phones, and computers for years—should be the spark to light Stone’s touchpaper. Instead, he’s delivered a solid, watchable biopic that utterly lacks the over-the-top flourishes that once made his films so compelling.
Stone has never imitated the staid, fact-oriented style of most biopics. Some of his best works (JFK, Nixon, and even Any Given Sunday, his take on the NFL) have taken real stories of shadowy abuses of power and blown them up to operatic proportions. But he had less fun with W., his George W. Bush opus that had a strange, chummy affection for its protagonist, and in recent years he’s seem lost, making a pointless Wall Street sequel in 2010 and the grimy, unmemorable drug-runner drama Savages in 2012. The Oliver Stone of the ’90s, who had such a good grip on the distrust of his post-Vietnam generation, might have done great work with his latest film. But the Stone of recent years, who has struggled to remain relevant in a more understandably fearful post-9/11 America, didn’t seem to know what to do with Snowden’s fascinating life and career.
Still, he’s lucky to have Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role. Affecting a flat, croaky monotone and a shifty, withdrawn posture, the actor still manages to find some charm in the character, making the movie’s 140-minute running time much more bearable. Gordon-Levitt is best when he’s playing loners and weirdoes; his Snowden recalls the grumpy gumshoe of the high-school drama Brick, or the type-A dream-thief in Inception. He gave it his all as French acrobat Philippe Petit in last year’s The Walk, but his incessant exuberance for death-defying stunts came off as mostly creepy; as Snowden, where that same intensity is instead directed inward, he’s somehow alluring.
Because of that, you can see what the documentarian Poitras (here played by Melissa Leo) saw in Snowden as a filmmaking subject, and why the journalists Glenn Greenwald (a hilariously mean Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (a grandfatherly Tom Wilkinson) almost instantly took Snowden at his word when he handed over reams of encrypted NSA data. Stone, who also co-wrote the film with Kieran Fitzgerald, cuts between Snowden dramatically handing over the data to journalists in 2013 and the ups and downs of his career in the intelligence community. The former has real stakes, but like any true story it’s hampered by viewers already knowing the outcome; the latter is seriously meandering.
There’s the spine of a great story in Snowden’s national service, beginning with an abortive attempt to join the Marines (he was discharged after breaking his legs during training), then switching to a promising career in the CIA. Snowden has its hero bump into spies who range from wildly unethical (Timothy Olyphant as a slick field agent) to staunchly principled (Nicolas Cage as an inspirational teacher at the academy). Rhys Ifans stands out as Snowden’s mentor, Corbin O’Brien, who is occasionally sinuous but more often happy to justify the agency’s creeping surveillance techniques as a necessary sacrifice for national safety. Though he quits the CIA out of ethical disgust, Snowden eventually becomes an NSA contractor, forever part of the swirling maw of tech experts paid to keep the nation safe.
Snowden does well to portray how middle managers in the intelligence community might come to these rationalizations; it’s just surprisingly even-handed for the typically skeptical Stone. The film feels irredeemably trite in its efforts to depict America’s ensnarement in the creepy web of online spying. As Edward realizes the reach of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, and its constant email surveillance, Snowden zooms out to horrendous CGI maps of glowing strings connecting people around the world, like some off-brand Windows 95 demo. At one point, as Edward has sex with his girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), he eyes the gazing webcam of their open laptop with sweaty terror as the film blurs and fractures. These B-movie moments are supposed to help justify Snowden’s later decision to betray his country, but onscreen they’re blandly ineffective.
Woodley is perhaps the most under-served: A relatively stalwart presence at Snowden’s side, Lindsay puts up with a lot from him (he can’t talk about his job, appear in any pictures she takes, or really ever be cheerful about anything). In return, she’s handed the bulk of the story’s most boring material, designed to humanize a hero that Stone has already decided to canonize (the film literally ends with an audience giving Snowden a standing ovation). It’s Snowden’s scenes with the journalists, and his more subtle flickers of horror on the job at the NSA, that make him seem worth rooting for. Much of his personal life is just cruddy Hollywood padding for a movie that should be lean, angry, and focused. Stone used to be fearless in both the stories he told and the way he told them: Now, it seems, he’s just the former.