Originally published on Flickering Myth on 15/10/16.
No stranger to biographies or detailed retellings of American history, three-time Oscar-winner Oliver Stone seemed like almost the perfect person to make a tell-all adaptation of the life of Edward Snowden. Well, on paper anyway. In practice, the ageing filmmaker, still years on from his last hit, seems to struggle greatly with even just the very basic idea of making a tonally consistent film.
It’s difficult to find a place to start with Snowden, but in short, it is a total mess. Between its iffy plotting, mismatched performances and massively over-egged visuals, it’s baffling, trashy and unmistakably fun. But, of course, these are all things that a biopic of arguably one of the most important figures in contemporary US history, probably shouldn’t be.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is by all means incredibly cast in the lead. Not only is the young Californian a dead ringer for the man himself (who even pops up to make the resemblance all the more noticeable at the end), but he puts in every effort possible to make his portrayal of Snowden as authentic as he can. From the throaty monotone of his voice to a few, smaller but always noticeable mannerisms, JGL is very much the real deal here. It’s just a shame he’s apparently in a different movie entirely to each and every one of his co-stars.
Woodley is as likeable as ever as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, but her much more straight-forward free-spirit type seems to clash violently with the docu-drama aspects Stone is mostly aiming for. Meanwhile, Quinto, Leo and Wilkinson throw their weight around massively in a conspiracy-thriller framing device that’s far too chopped up to work, and a poorly cast Rhys Ifans seems to think he’s in a Batman movie for all his theatrical pauses and wild-eyed stares.
Between all the numerous tonal shifts, with Stone cutting between soppy beachside farewells, ultra tense hacking drama and grainy real-life news footage, often in the space of minutes, Snowden just feels massively all over the place at every turn.
In running Snowden’s attempts to publish his stolen material alongside what is essentially his life story, Stone certainly opened himself up for a difficult editing process, and in practise it really does him no favours. The flashbacks very quickly take over the key narrative of the film and the more action-packed story of precisely how Snowden became the face of one of the biggest intelligence leaks in US history, gradually vanishes under the weight of it.
What remains is an often charming, if very misguided and repetitive biopic, which is far more concerned with Snowden’s personal life and individual struggles than it is with the actual NSA hacking itself. It’s an understandable choice by Stone – a very pro-Snowden personality who obviously wanted to show off the man behind the myth, and all of the reasons that lead to his ultimately infamous decisions, but it’s a choice that he refuses to ever really stick to.
Some sequences play out as beautifully Greengrass-esque docu-style re-tellings, packed out with plenty of tension and believable performances to boot, whilst others seems to be the exact opposite. Steeped in cliche after cliche and random cameo after random cameo (Nicolas Cage takes a bow in a highly-deletable role for all of a minute), there’s so much unnecessary content here that it really swamps would could’ve otherwise been an incredibly important film.
Instead Stone delivers what can only be described as the work of a man trying to make a serious documentary, and a glitzy episode of CSI: Miami at the same time. It frequently borders on self-parody, ties itself in frankly mystifying narrative knots and eventually ends up wasting a fantastic opportunity at sharing an influential story with a much wider audience.
For a better leg-up, stick with the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, unless you like your biopics trashy, then by all means give Snowden a whirl. Just make sure you stay through the credits for Peter Gabriel’s wildly inappropriate theme song.
Snowden was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2016.