One of the hottest news stories of recent years was when former CIA employee Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques in 2013 through thousands of classified documents that were given to the press. It’s a fascinating tale that we got to hear from his own lips in Laura Poitras’ outstanding documentary “Citizenfour,” which easily took the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature of 2014. Now, three-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone brings us what I suppose you could call a “reenactment” of the whole affair, telling how Snowden got where he was and why he did what he did, but could a mere dramatization ever hope to reach the heights of hearing the story from the source himself?
As the film opens in 2004, we find Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) training to be in the Army, but due to his weak bones, he is discharged and forced to find another way to serve his country. This leads him to try and join the CIA, where he is taken on by instructor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who becomes something of a mentor to him. We soon find out that Snowden is a genius with computers, a talent that has him rising to the top rather quickly. However, he soon discovers that the methods being used by the organization aren’t exactly legal, and that they can search practically anything that anyone has ever put online. It presents a strong crisis of conscience, one that begins to affect not only his work, but also his relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley).
Meanwhile, this story is intercut with the present day, where Snowden is in Russia meeting with journalists (Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson) and a filmmaker (Melissa Leo) who want to help him tell the world about the secret surveillance techniques that the US government has been using. Each of them is well-aware of the dangers involved in bringing this information to the public, but in their quest to do what they feel is right, the end results will more than justify the risks.
Right off the bat, you’d be forgiven for thinking that releasing a narrative feature about Snowden just two years after an outstanding documentary that covered pretty much the same material is a little redundant and perhaps even unnecessary. However, we can hardly hold that against it, for how many times have we seen films with almost the exact plot released within a year or two before? This is not even to mention the fact that this new telling of the story is from legendary filmmaker Oliver Stone, the man who brought us such films as “Born on the Fourth of July,” “JFK,” “Platoon,” and “Wall Street,” so it seems more than fair to give him the benefit of the doubt.
That being said, the film itself is a rather curious experience. It starts off well by going through Snowden’s backstory, including how he originally wanted to serve his country in the Army, but was forced to find another way. These early pieces of the story fall into place quite well, setting up the inevitable conflict to come, but strangely enough, when it comes to this arguably most intriguing section of his career, the film falls unexpectedly flat.
It must be said that the film is rather by-the-numbers, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (see Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” for a fine example of such a story being told remarkably well), but when it comes to “Snowden,” this method of telling this extraordinary tale doesn’t do it any favors, turning the film into a somewhat trying experience as it goes about its 134-minute runtime and ending up exactly where we know it must.
The excellent cast, which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, and Nicholas Cage, is certainly not to blame, for they all play their parts rather well. It would seem that the source of the film’s troubles can be traced back to its somewhat lackluster screenplay, which was written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald. As mentioned, it sets up the story rather well, but when it comes to keeping it engaging during the period in which Snowden has to make his life-altering decisions, it just isn’t able to reach those same levels.
In this instance, the best advice to be given would be simply to seek out Poitras’ excellent documentary in order to hear the important parts of this story from Snowden himself, who relays them in a more compelling manner than this subsequent dramatization. I wouldn’t say Stone’s film was a total loss, as it does a lot of things right, but as for getting to the heart of the matter, it becomes hard to shake that feeling of the film being put perfunctorily on autopilot as it tries to make its big, emotional landing, leaving “Snowden” as a mostly unsatisfying endeavor in the process.
“Snowden” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.40: 1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. The picture is perfectly sharp and clear throughout the entire presentation, delivering a top-notch viewing experience. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is likewise excellent, giving you all of the dialogue and score in great quality. Overall, the film has been given marvelous treatment, leaving little room for complaint.
Finding the Truth (4 Minutes): A brief featurette that goes behind the scenes of the film, featuring interviews with the cast and crew.
Snowden Q&A (41 Minutes): A fascinating and informative Q&A with Edward Snowden, Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Shailene Woodley.
Deleted Scenes (9 Minutes): A collection of deleted and extended sequences that don’t really add anything to the film.
Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” has a few elements working in its favor, including a top-notch cast and a compelling first act, but when it comes to telling the more important parts of Snowden’s career, it falls a little flat thanks to a by-the-numbers screenplay that just isn’t able to keep up the decent levels of engagement it began with. It was a noble effort from Stone, but for the better telling of Snowden’s story, one should simply watch (or rewatch) “Citizenfour.”