This post discusses the plot of “Snowden,” which, if you have read the news for the past several years, you probably already know.
It really ought to be difficult to make a boring movie about Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and government contractor who rocked the world with revelations about American mass surveillance and data collection. And yet Oliver Stone has succeeded with “Snowden,” a thuddingly obvious hagiography that never misses an opportunity to hammer home a point yet seems oblivious to some of the basic rules of storytelling.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a nice job of portraying Edward Snowden as cerebral, mission-driven and highly interior, even as he has to carry us through embarrassing scenes such as one where he tells his CIA mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans, whom Hollywood has never quite figured out how to use properly) that he’s inspired by “Joseph Campbell. ‘Star Wars.’ Ayn Rand.”
But Gordon-Levitt is swamped by exposition and heavy-handed images, such as a shot of a woman’s crotch as she slides down a stripper pole that’s meant to parallel Snowden’s worries about surveillance of his private life; a toy drone at a birthday party that crashes due to some inept piloting; and a video conference call with O’Brian that, for some reason, is projected across an entire wall, making O’Brian loom over Snowden not just metaphorically but also literally. O’Brian’s office looks as though it was looted from an off-brand production of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” At one point, Stone literally uses a prismatic effect to shoot Snowden, because PRISM is a National Security Agency surveillance program. Stone is standing athwart his own movie yelling, “Get it?”
The movie about Snowden sometimes feels as airless as the secure bunkers where he does his work.
Whether the cause is a bad script or poor editing that assumes the audience already knows a lot of background, “Snowden” has a strange aversion to building comprehensible relationships between its characters, with the result that certain critical scenes are entirely lacking in the context that would give them any wallop.
Because we never learn how the team that met Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room came together, the film gives us no sense of the power dynamics between documentarian Laura Poitras (a hugely wasted Melissa Leo), the writer Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Janine Gibson (Joely Richardson). When Greenwald snaps at Gibson over her insistence that his stories be edited and vetted, “Snowden” gives us no reason to understand why he’d be so hostile to her or why a few hours’ difference in publishing time makes a difference. The scene also gives us the nasty impression that doing the basic work of ensuring the integrity of a piece of journalism, whether that means verifying that documents are authentic or editing a piece carefully, is somehow craven or collaborationist.
In a similar way, “Snowden” never particularly manages to establish the spark between Snowden and his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Stone’s depiction of Mills as a pole-dancing, mildly-erotic-photo-taking helpmeet might be hideously clichéd if it didn’t appear to be basically true. But more to the point, it’s never clear why these two people actually like each other, which makes it difficult to feel as though Snowden is doing something wrenching when he ditches Mills in Hawaii and hides himself in Hong Kong.
We know they meet on some sort of geek-oriented dating site, but not about what interests led them there. And after a first date where they argue about politics and what it means to be patriotic, every single conversation they have is about their relationship: whether he works too much; whether she cares too little about online security; whether they should move to Hawaii for his health; whether he has a martyr complex. The movie’s portrait of their time together is less a grand romance than a decent argument that Mills should have been relieved when Snowden vanished on her.
And while references to the Snowden family’s history of public service crop up throughout the movie, the film doesn’t actually introduce us to any of Snowden’s relatives, which might have heightened our sense of what Snowden was risking and the source of his motivations.
The lack of plausible human connection isn’t the only bad choice Stone makes in “Snowden.” Rather than staging the central section of the movie as, essentially, an extended heist story, with Snowden choosing jobs based on the information they would give him access to and downloading documents over a period of time, Stone compresses those events down to a single session at the computer. The movie never even attempts to explain the security setups that gave Snowden such extensive access. And for a movie about technology, the climax is surprisingly inept. Snowden’s great fear during his downloading session is that someone will come by and see his desktop; it never seems to occur to this supposed genius to open another window, leaving a host of downloads processing merrily away in the background.
I intend none of this as any particular judgment on the real Edward Snowden, Lindsay Mills, Laura Poitras (whose Snowden film “Citizenfour” is quite good) or Glenn Greenwald. Rather, while watching “Snowden,” I was struck by the width of the gap between Stone’s intentions to portray Snowden as a saint — best illustrated by the ghastly, mawkish Peter Gabriel track that plays over the end credits — and the attenuated end result. Turning people into martyrs has a tendency to freeze them into stiff archetypes rather than make them come compellingly alive.