Snowden: NSA surveillance for dummies

​There’s an inevitable desire to start constantly looking over your shoulder and watching what you post on social media after screening the political drama “Snowden,” now in theaters.

Oscar winner Oliver Stone’s paranoia-inducing image rehabilitation feature narrative on famed former NSA analyst and fugitive Edward Snowden hits heavy for those relatively uninformed about the titular character’s life and actions. However, for news-minded individuals, “Snowden” comes across as an uninspired, paint-by-numbers tale about love in the time of mass surveillance.

Told in an awkward flash-back, flash-forward narrative structure, Stone’s film follows Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he comes to work for the CIA and later the NSA. He serves the country with the best of intentions for many years while falling in love with his longtime girlfriend, Lindsey Mills (Shailene Woodley). When Snowden is tasked with working on NSA surveillance programs targeting large numbers of U.S. citizens, he makes a break out of the country with highly classified intel in tow.

More biopic than political thriller, Stone and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald opt to humanize the polarizing Snowden for audiences through a significantly developed love story with Mills. While this allows viewers to be better able to put themselves in Snowden’s shoes, it reinforces the dramatization of Snowden’s life story more so than an average biopic would. In this sense, “Snowden” becomes the cliff notes to a true person’s life story, the “Idiot’s Guide to NSA Surveillance” if you will.

It feels like the intent of the filmmakers – and star Gordon-Levitt has spoken publically to this effect – that “Snowden” is simply a means through which audiences will begin a conversation about the issues raised in the film and do more research on their own. In this respect, the film takes a great deal of time dramatizing the filming of the Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour,” which shows a real-life Snowden working with journalists to expose secret government programs to the general public.

Watching “Citizenfour” or seeing Snowden speak publically, it’s readily apparent how spot on Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of the whistleblower truly is. He captures Snowden’s unique cadence and accent perfectly, adopting his eccentric mannerisms in a vividly imaginative performance. It’s unlikely that he will get major awards recognition for his efforts, especially given the subject, but Gordon-Levitt still turns in one of 2016’s best performances in an otherwise pedestrian film.

After starting her career with terrific turns in independent films like “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now,” Woodley has been languishing away in franchise fodder through three “Divergent” movies before returning to drama with “Snowden.” 

It’s evident that Woodley gives the role of Mills her full effort, especially during argument scenes opposite Gordon-Levitt. But the middling screenplay leaves Mills languishing from start to finish, operating simply as character witness for Stone’s hero-making effort for Snowden rather than her own unique character.

“Snowden” boasts an impressive and deep supporting cast including Oscar winner Melissa Leo as documentarian Laura Poitras, Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto as a pair of Guardian journalists and Rhys Ifans as Snowden’s mentor/boss with nefarious intentions. These performances all serve the narrative relatively well, but it’s Nicolas Cage’s outlandish casting and effort as a CIA trainer and friend that feels over the top and ridiculous. Nearly all of the actors in “Snowden” do an effective job of supporting Gordon-Levitt’s turn as Snowden, but Cage just brings the movie to a screeching halt in his limited screen time.

For whatever reason, “Snowden” just doesn’t feel like an Oliver Stone movie. Frequently a risk taker with his films, Stone just takes the easiest road and plays the entire film pretty safe both visually and narratively in service of his obvious goal of lionizing Snowden as a whistleblowing patriot.

The result is a disjointed, haphazard film that is probably better suited as a rental or streaming option several months from now rather than a film audiences need to rush out to theaters to see in spite of a terrific Gordon-Levitt performance.

“Citizenfour,” the Oscar winning documentary highlighted in “Snowden,” comes highly recommended and should fill moviegoers’ Snowden needs until the Oliver Stone hero-making piece arrives in home video.

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