Citizens of the world who haven’t yet had their mental faculties obliterated by the social media maelstrom birthed by the advent of Trump’s presidency may remember something else from 2016: that the war for votes in the US election also had a battlefield on the silver screen. Last year, we got a duo of emotionally-charged movies from both sides of the political spectrum whose purpose to entertain was shared by an intent to galvanize their target audiences for the democratic massacre to come. Conservatives got their anti-Clinton hard-ons from 13 Hours, a decent war film clouded by wedged-in right-wing machismo, while liberals got moist over Snowden, a biopic of the former CIA contractor turned surveillance dissident that, at least from its marketing, promised to give a balanced view on a man who has continued - and will for decades to come - to polarize American opinion. While the contextual overlap between these two films is minimal, the intent of 13 Hours was at least clear from the outset - being already based on a book re-telling the Benghazi incident with a heavy Republican bias, all the movie had to do was give the same story the same kind of slant. And it did. Snowden meanwhile, persists for a good 100 minutes insisting it is fair and impartial, asking you to decide whether or not the protagonist of its title is hero or patriot, before revealing a climax that quashes any notion of neutrality by telling you what to think. Whichever side of the debate you’re on - and I, personally, believe the man to have done a bloody good deed with his actions - one does have to question the integrity of a movie that promises one thing and delivers another. But selling a promotional angle to get butts in theater seats isn’t Snowden’s biggest crime - the bigger problem is that, despite a stellar performance from its lead (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), it’s actually rather boring.
Luckily, a synopsis for this movie isn’t really needed - Edward Snowden is a name that’s been synonymous with almost every news item covering US intelligence since the latter half of the Obama administration. Unless you’ve been living under a rock on Mars (and even then I’m sure the news still travelled), it’s pretty likely you’re going to know who he is. The hows and the whys of his defection from US soil have also been regurgitated ad nauseum across every newspaper from the Guardian to the New York Post, but what is a little less clear is the path beforehand. After all, it takes some transition of attitude to go from being just another cog within a sprawling national security agency, to its most high-profile renegade. To shed light on such a figure is a task best left to the kind of film-makers capable of tackling such persons of interest - so it’s not a huge surprise that Oliver Stone, a man who’s built a legendary career on profiling the prominent and controversial, landed the gig. The cast he’s directing possess a fair amount of contemporary and prospective gravitas as well - the previously-mentioned Gordon-Levitt is joined by the likes of Rhys Ifans, Zachary Quinto and Shailene Woodley, which on paper looks like a lineup that screams ‘right place, right time’ for a film aiming to be both a current-affairs cornerstone and a springboard for acting talent looking to launch themselves to bonafide A-list status. Thusly, it’s all the more frustrating that for all the names on show, Snowden is far too often lacking in spark, verve or depth to give the re-telling of its world-defining events the on-screen interpretation they’re due - and the reasons for that are numerous, and surprisingly puzzling given the contributors involved.
At least one thing that can be said is that the film does go out of its way to build out its focal character into something more than just a headline or a talking head on a Russian satellite call. We get to see a lot of Snowden’s early adult life besides his rise through the CIA as a prodigious programming genius - his fleeting army days before he even got close to a computer terminal, the rocky relationship with then-girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Woodley) and the race against time involving his negotiation with Guardian journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room to get the truth of America’s surveillance strategy out to the public. All of these additional perspectives are given ample time to contribute to the film’s full portrait, and are pulled off with varying degrees of success. The Hong Kong scenes certainly work the best, serving as the backbone upon which Snowden’s story is told as they intersperse between other scenes depicting other milestone moments, before developing into the stage for the film’s thrilling penultimate chapter involving Snowden’s eventual escape to Russia. The rest are, at best, a hodge-podge morass of unnecessary points deemed necessary by the film’s need to give itself a human quality, and necessary points made unnecessary by drab dialogue or half-hearted attempts to inject dramatic energy. Essentially, Snowden is at its best when dealing with the meat of its subject - those being the training and then fulfilment of its lead figure’s own duties under the CIA, the revelations of the agency’s full breadth of snooping operations, and the ever-increasing moral weight that comes with his decision to remain in lockstep with agency direction until the film’s climax. Anything else is either a distraction or an excuse for some heavy-handed moralling - and unfortunately there’s enough of that to make the film enough of a chore that is relieving, rather than uplifting, to see its eventual resolution.
Still, if there is good to be had, it’s definitely present in the performances of the cast, who often lift some poor scripting to a standard worthy of carrying the topics it’s been employed to do. Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of Snowden is honestly, pitch-perfect - the reserved determination of his counterpart’s own desire to serve his country, before realising that his country no longer serves the American people, is gripping to watch. In amongst the film’s slow-burning revelations of covert CIA power-monging and the ever-increasing necessity to do what’s right, Gordon-Levitt deftly gives Snowden a believability to make both his professional and personal struggles, and his reactions to them, understandable given the increasing pressure that begins to envelop him. The same can’t really be said for his chemistry with on-screen partner Woodley, perhaps because their flashpoint arguments over their relationship (caused by Snowden’s unwittingly imposed distance due to the increasing moral dilemma of his job) are dulled down by the kind of unimaginative, token lines more suited to a breakup in an afternoon soap opera. Both of them do their best to make something happen, but there’s only so much done with such limited writing - and it becomes an irritating factor given how much time is actually offered to this angle when it ultimately amounts to a lot of false emotional wrangling.
When the personal aspects of Snowden’s story fail, we at least have the hope that the movie itself will remain detailed, engrossing and unbiased. There are small peaks of all of those traits throughout the movie - particularly with the previously-mentioned scenes involving the Guardian journalists (Quinto portraying Glenn Greenwald and British actor Tom Wilkinson as Ewen MacAskill). But the quality of the film definitely shows itself more in Snowden’s formative years in training at the CIA, under the tutelage of recruiter Corbin O’Brien - an individual given a dryly sarcastic, elusive sense of mystery by Rhys Ifans who succeeds in offering his character’s motivations some critical depth. Although O’Brien undoubtedly winds up being Snowden’s main antagonist once he decides to go rogue, the spotlight put upon him, illuminated by Ifans’ great work, portrays him as a man with the same interests for national security as Snowden does - it’s just that he happens to have considerably different ideals to maintain it. This subtle spin is a major reason why Snowden feels like such an impartial movie from the outset - you may not agree with O’Brien’s views, but you can at least understand where he’s coming from. With that component alone, Snowden at least manages to remain compelling enough to keep itself going, at least until the wheels on this train of even-handedness begin to get a bit creaky once the final destination comes into view.
Undoubtedly Snowden’s biggest problem is in its script - it dwells too long at too many points, and eventually goes from spinning Snowden as a character whose morality is to be debated, to making him the hero we’re supposed to be cheering on. Which is fine - if you’re not trying to insist that you’re being equitable about his portrayal. But once the odd rousing line or two about liberty begin to be dropped and Ifans’ O’Brien starts peering evilly into his webcam during conference calls, this veil of neutrality is promptly discarded. It doesn’t do much to dampen what is still a pretty tense finale, but the viewer is now watching a different movie than the one they originally came in for. And when the final 5 minutes is even footage of the real Edward Snowden giving a remote interview to an audience attending an early screening of the movie (complete with subtly uplifting soundtrack and him staring off awkwardly for 10 seconds before the credits roll), it’s obvious that the film has made its mind up for all of us how we should perceive him. It’s the equivalent of asking a debate question and then being told what the answer is, and it feels disingenuous if you weren’t coming into the movie expecting that kind of thing.
Awkward ending aside, there is still enough merit in Snowden’s cast performances for it to be probably worth a watch. Not to mention Nicolas Cage, that ever-lasting enigma of Hollywood role assignment, pops up with a really good cameo as a CIA cryptography professor too - indicating that if ever there was an actor who needed a good director to excel, it would be him. But don’t let anyone fool you - this is not the unbiased story of one of America’s most tumultuous modern-day individuals that the trailers touted it as. It is instead an okay espionage movie, both as engaging as it is turgidly slow, and one that insists that its real-life figure is a champion for all of us, whether you agree with that notion or not.