Does the world still need a primer on Edward Snowden? If the answer is yes, then Oliver Stone has performed a service by dramatizing the events that turned a patriotic young man into a disillusioned whistle-blower and, some say, a traitor. If you’re already familiar with this notorious figure Snowden won’t shed any particular light on the subject.
And if you’ve seen Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour (2014) you’ve already experienced the most exciting part of the story, when he spills the beans to a pair of reporters and a documentarian in a Hong Kong hotel. Being there as Snowden reveals what he knows about U.S. government surveillance of its own citizens is almost indescribably gripping and immediate.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is well-cast as the all-American boy who is discharged from the military after injuring his leg during basic training and told that there are other ways to serve his country. Rhys Ifans plays the CIA official who recruits him for the agency and takes him under his wing. Shailene Woodley seems a perfect match as Gordon-Levitt’s girlfriend who remains loyal even though he’s unable to reveal the source of the intense pressures that plague him over their years together.
Given director Stone’s own movie mood swings over the years, covering politics and the U.S. presidency, this effort seems especially tame. He shares writing credit with Kieran Fitzgerald, drawing on two separate books about l’affaire Snowden, but there is little if any of the fire one might expect from the man who gave us JFK, Nixon, and W.
It’s difficult to criticize the straightforward narrative for any other reason except the one that matters most: at this point, why bother?