I am not a big fan of Oliver Stone. While I admire his willingness when it comes to what subjects he wishes to tackle and how closely dedicated he seems to be towards what he chooses to tell, there’s a common problem I find with his work especially when it tries to tell a story within said area: they feel so one-sided. So when the idea came about that he was set to direct a film about the life of Edward Snowden rather quickly after Laura Poitras covered him in her documentary Citizenfour, two things came to my mind: 1) why is a biopic about him being released this soon after Citizenfour, and 2) do we really have enough information about Edward Snowden to make a biopic this instant? It made clear to me why Snowden was a pointless film.
As the title would already say, Snowden is a film that follows the life of Edward Snowden as he is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and what ultimately has led him on his journey to become the whistleblower that he is. A good amount of the film is told in the flashback format, for we gain a sense of his own perspective as he trains for the trains for the military before he moved to trying out for the CIA. Among many other things, we also explore a romance he has together with Lindsay Mills and how Snowden’s life changes when he gets a hold of classified information which he intends to leak to the public. There should be much more about Edward Snowden to say than just that, but I’m struggling to piece together enough content to describe where Stone chose to have the story move because it never carried enough within that regard but there’s not enough specifics to highlight in this case.
Regardless of your opinion on Edward Snowden, he is a fascinating figure – but that is one amongst many factors that ultimately proves Snowden to be an experience as frustrating as it is. Citizenfour already exists to reinform us about what it was that made Snowden the fascinating figure to observe even for how little we know about him at the moment, but that proves to be one of the many shortcomings of Stone’s biopic – we don’t know the man enough just yet. Edward Snowden is a man in his early 30’s, alive and still at large and aside from the information that we are already given about him in Citizenfour, it never feels as if we have enough information about Edward Snowden considering how soon this biopic had come.
It would be easy enough for me to overlook that fatal flaw if I can still look at Snowden as any other film about any ordinary tech hacker but even on that count it fails to become compelling. For how much effort can be evident in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as the titular figure, more shortcomings become prevalent from there because even as an ordinary tech hacker, Snowden still remains a boring and generic figure without much to really be told about himself. It doesn’t help when the romance aspect between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley (in a rather awful performance) feels as if it were added in as filler, which only highlights a greater sense of melodrama when all it does is drag the film out all the more, and soon enough creates a lack of consistency for the final product.
However, if there was yet one thing about Snowden that bugged me more than anything, it was the fact that Stone decided to have Laura Poitras, the director of Citizenfour an actual supporting character in the film. I understand what sort of significance she would have on his story considering what part of his life Citizenfour is tackling but had there been anything to say about this aspect and the fact Citizenfour came out only two years ago, it feels like her addition plays out as a reminder as to viewers that they can be watching a superior film about the exact same subject. I almost want to give The Walk (another film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt whose subject was the focus of another documentary) credit on the count that it tries to be vastly different from Man on Wire, but in Snowden‘s case it’s never clear if to be different from a narrative covering the same information for how much it is over-simplifying the subject it is carrying.
Even if I disliked The Walk, at least it had potential because there’s a load of information already about Philippe Petit that can ultimately cover a feature film without a reliance upon a romance to highlight dramatic effect, but in Snowden‘s case we have a whole bunch of filler coming in and it never feels it can sustain the length it carries. You’ll have some good performances and occasionally nice cinematography, but considering how soon it came after Citizenfour it suffers what The Walk did: all we are given is the basic stuff we know beforehand and thus it takes out all interest. The bigger problem with Snowden arises, however, from the fact that we don’t know Edward Snowden enough to cover his life story in a biopic just yet.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Open Road Films.
Directed by Oliver Stone
Screenplay by Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone, from the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena
Produced by Moritz Borman, Eric Kopeloff, Philip Schulz-Deyle, Fernando Sulichin
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Timothy Olymphant, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage
Release Year: 2016
Running Time: 134 minutes