You will no doubt come to Snowden with some degree of familiarity with the story of America’s most famous whistleblower. Whether you’ve only scanned the boldest headlines, caught a showing of Citizenfour, or even pored over Edward Snowden’s Wikipedia page with a fine-toothed comb, there’s plenty that Oliver Stone’s latest high-stakes biopic can inform you about its hero’s journey from patriotic everyman to enemy of the state.
The vast majority of the film, in fact, tethers to the chapters of Snowden’s personal history that predate anything that’s breached the national news. We spend the first two thirds of the movie with an early-20s Edward (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who, after bidding a begrudging farewell to a career in the armed forces, steps swiftly up the occupational ladder in the Central Intelligence Agency.
It is here that Stone draws his picture of the nascent Snowden: shy but blunt, curious but trusting, intellectual but jingoistic… and, apparently, a big fan of Ghost in the Shell. Though he carries himself quite awkwardly and forces the strangest inflection in recent voice acting history, Gordon-Levitt delivers his typical watchability as Edward Snowden; the character’s uptight nature even seems to justify his performer’s consistent penchant toward stiffness.
It is likewise here that we see Snowden found the most important relationships that’ll follow him through the movie. One with CIA top dog Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who becomes a proverbial father figure for Snowden, likewise the human embodiment of the agency on the whole. When Gordon-Levitt is paired with Ifans, Snowden is at its cagiest and liveliest; though their dynamic follows the blueprints of many a spy thriller, this pairing of able-bodied performers makes for entertaining drama.
Other characters of note: Fellow agent Gabe (Ben Schnetzer, whom you might recognize as boy wizard Khadgar from Warcraft), who introduces Ed both to the American government’s less kosher operations, as well as to a more flexible relationship with the job and department; Keith Stanfield carries Schnetzer’s torch later in the movie, managing impressive vividness even without much material.
Most significantly, we have left-leaning amateur photographer and bona fide free spirit Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), who becomes Snowden’s partner in life and emotional pandemonium after what may be the least charming first date scene in cinema history. Their romance lends more meat to the film than you’d likely expect, as Lindsey doubles as Edward’s sole point of access to the civilian world, and emotional foil (in that she’s emotional to any noticeable degree). Still, considering the bulk of time we spend wedged between the young lovers, we’re asked to fill in quite a few blanks in regard to the development of their relationship.
For good measure, I’ll add that Snowden also happens upon a character played by Nicolas Cage, whose role in the movie is so inconsequential that your surprise to see him onscreen will renew every time he pops in for a quick chat.
Though the formal explanation for the first half of Snowden might be attributed to character building, it feels more like biding time. With the exception of flash-forwards to Snowden’s secretive 2013 meeting with Citizenfour documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (a hot-tempered Zachary Quinto) and Ewen McAskill (Tom Wilkinson), all that the film’s first hour-and-change gives us in the vein of the central conflict is the occasional seed of foreshadowing.
More criminal is that even over this expansion of time does Snowden’s evolution play as abrupt. If one or two independent suggestions of regrettable behavior on the part of the agency—one involving a very Timothy Olyphant-y Timothy Olyphant—is enough to turn Edward against his government, then his ideology couldn’t really have been all that concrete in the first place. In light of this, we’re inclined to ask why the heck we had to spend two full acts watching them break down.
Finally, Snowden gets the chapter that even those most tepidly aware of the real man’s story will have been waiting for. Even then, however, with as dire a threat as any imaginable on the horizon and the accentuated weight of extratextual truth, the film can’t muster anything close to genuine excitement.
The film’s evasion of boredom can be thanked to Gordon-Levitt, who, even when armed with a mainlining narrative and some periodically regrettable dialogue, is human enough to walk us through what amounts to 90 minutes of scene setting. Although it may be interesting to learn what an inherently fascinating character like Edward Joseph Snowden was up to in the years before his name would come to warrant notability, the cap value of a slew of fun facts is really all Snowden is prepared to deliver. The movie may inform you of plenty, but it really doesn’t tell you much of a story.
Rating: 2.5 burritos out of 5.
Images: Open Road Films
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. You can easily find him on Twitter (because he clearly learned nothing from Edward Snowden) @MichaelArbeiter.
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