The Edward Snowden biopic focuses on his relationship to Lindsay Mills, for better and worse.
The inevitable has once again become reality in Hollywood. Snowden, the biopic based on the life of the NSA hacker of the same name, has arrived at last. Storied director Oliver Stone keeps the source material well within his political wheel house, but the problems with Snowden don’t derive from its liberal praising of whistleblowers. They arise almost entirely from the blandness of a film that neither eclipses the real events or creates enough of a sense of self identity.
Snowden uses the events of Laura Poitras’ (portrayed by Melissa Leo) phenomenal documentary Citizenfour, which encompasses the days Snowden spent with the press during the leak of information, as a framing device for the rest of the story. The moments within the core story follow the life of Snowden from the brief time he spends in the military and continue through his time at working for NSA and private contractors.
Maybe it’s not fair to compare a dramatization to a documentary made with the help and consent of the subject, so I will keep this part brief. Snowden is an inferior product to Citizenfour in every way. The documentary provides a more riveting sense of tension and a tighter grasp on the concepts at play. There is a stylistic sense of brevity to Citizenfour. Snowden feels dry in comparison.
Stone’s main focus as a director – and in reality the aspect of Snowden that is new ground – is to paint Snowden’s romantic partner Lindsay Mills in a new light. The plan was to tell the media what exactly they got wrong and how. It’s demonstrative of the problem with Snowden as a whole, which is to say it is well done but underwhelming. Both Gordon-Levitt (Snowden) and Shailene Woodley (Mills) give solid performances that serve the story, but lack nuance. The relationship is a through-line and produces a handful of inspired scenes, but neither character really changes what they want from each other. Still, as individual sequences, these scenes work.
What Snowden lacks in comparison to successful biopics like The Big Short is the way it conveys essential information. While the film is filled to the brim with technical jargon, the basics take too long to explain. This leaves little room for the implications to be shown. We know Edward Snowden knows more than we do, to a frustrating extent. For as dense as this side of the story is, it feels you should walk away with a greater understanding than you do.
Snowden slides into the finale, having given little sense of reason to care aside from the pure intrigue of the subject matter. Better biopics have been made, worse biopics have been made. There are better Oliver Stone movies, there are worse Oliver Stone movies. Yet, it ends up being difficult to say much constructive about Snowden aside from use your two hours to watch Citizenfour instead.
Snowden is in theaters now.