Oliver Stone's "Snowden" Proves A Predictably Patchy Docudrama

Some filmmakers elect to whisper at moviegoers, eschewing volume for quiet, meditative storytelling. Others chat with their audience, sustaining a healthy balance between loud and soft, abrasion and tenderness. Then there’s Oliver Stone. The “JFK” writer-director has made a career of shouting through the screen, slapping us to attention, making his mark as one of the most divisive creative voices of his generation. (Born in 1946, he ranks among the oldest of baby boomers.) Accordingly, he’s an especially uneasy match for the real-life story of American patriot-slash-traitor (and millennial) Edward Snowden.

Yes, Stone’s distaste for the American government is an obvious fit for the material. But his generally conspicuous mode of moviemaking is antithetical to the film’s subject matter (espionage), and his leading man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) isn’t merely on the same page. He’s on the same word. And that word is “fortissimo.” The outcome is as weird as anyone might fear – or hope for – ending up a loudly inconsistent work that ranges from terrible to hilarious to, finally, pretty good.

Gordon-Levitt’s turn as the titular NSA subcontractee-turned-whistleblower comes from two obvious places. Firstly, that a gaunt Seth Rogen was unavailable. (Their resemblance is substantial.) Secondly, the performance is an impression. There’s no mistaking the actor’s choice of flat-out imitating Snowden, and barring the existence of an invasive new medical procedure that saw his larynx coated in Nutella, it’s an awkward portrayal that didn’t have to be that way. It befuddles throughout, to the point that some might wish the “Inception” star would break into a few bars of “Rainbow Connection.” To allay the awkwardness, yes, but also because he kind of sounds like Kermit The Frog. (Gordon-Levitt handled a different cadence much better in last year’s “The Walk.”)

The screenplay (co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald) is every bit as wonky, using the events of superior HBO documentary “Citizenfour” as its launching pad. It’s June 2013 and the now-fugitive Snowden has called on three journalists – Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) – to meet him in Hong Kong. The trio will commandeer Snowden’s leaked NSA documents that prove the American government is unlawfully spying on its own citizens; Snowden will begin his transition from civilian to refugee.

Soon, the film turns the summit from starting point to framing device, breaking it up with long departures into Snowden’s past life. We follow him from 2004 as an Army Reserves Special Forces candidate to his work in Maryland with the CIA and then to the NSA’s regional operations center in Hawaii.

Hammy supporting performances abound (Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant), along with puzzling visual choices that venture close to self-parody on Stone’s part (trippy depictions of Snowden’s epilepsy), with some hilariously on-the-nose political discourse lobbed in for good measure (a college-aged Snowden lists his big inspirations as “Star Wars” and Ayn Rand). Regardless of accuracy, none of these elements complement what portends to be a serious movie about serious things. And the script flat-out fails to pinpoint its protagonist’s metamorphosis from proud American to willing dissident.

Edward’s romance with longtime girlfriend and photographer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) is nearly a total dramatic loss. Other than Mills’ profession being at odds with her increasingly camera-shy boyfriend, the script has no concept of what to do with her. They’re very similar people, becoming more similar as the film moves along, and Mills is ultimately relegated to little more than purveyor of emotional turbulence. She becomes justifiably upset with Snowden’s constant need to relocate, a wrinkle that’s seemingly included to humanize both characters. Instead, it only underlines that these people’s lives were relatively dull until Snowden decided to copy and leak classified information.

The good news is that the final third of “Snowden” is a pretty compelling re-enactment of Snowden’s final days in Hawaii, and then his escape: from Oahu to Hong Kong to Moscow. The flashbacks finally catch up to the meeting in Hong Kong and the picture finds its groove, becoming the streamlined, inverted spy movie it might have been in the first place. Snowden’s actions only begin to make sense in the context of that very short window of time. When the movie stops telling and starts showing, it makes all the difference.

Oliver Stone makes a late game, characteristically ballsy move that sees Gordon-Levitt cede the screen to the real Snowden. The moment is the movie in a nutshell. It absolutely doesn’t work but it’s charming in its own oddball way, reminding us of the agreeable kookiness the writer-director is capable of.

In the end, very little new ground is tread, confirming what might have been assumed from the get-go: “Citizenfour” is and will remain the definitive film on the subject, for so many reasons. But “Snowden” proves a moderately engaging companion piece, mystifying and entertaining in equal measure. Blisters and all.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: September 16, 2016
Studio: Open Road Films
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenwriter: Oliver Stone, Kieran Fitzgerald
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Ben Schnetzer, Lakeith Lee Stanfield
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity)