If ever there were a modern topic that was prime fodder for a filmmaker like Oliver Stone, it would be the saga of Edward Snowden. The rabble-rouser behind such films as Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and W. knows how to court controversy, and the deeds – or misdeeds, depending on your viewpoint – of Snowden are right up Stone’s alley.
Snowden starts in 2013 with Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in Hong Kong, where he has gone to divulge his plethora of secret NSA documents to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). Stone then flashes back through Snowden’s career, which included stints working with the Army, the CIA, and the NSA.
It’s clear from the get-go that Stone regards Snowden’s story as that of a hero. As he rises in the ranks of the intelligence community, Snowden encounters person after person who is blasé about the unlawful spying the U.S. government is doing on people around the world, including U.S. citizens. While he initially goes along with the violations, the more he becomes entrenched in that world, the more it weighs on his conscience.
Stresses from his job don’t help his on-again, off-again relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a free spirit who often seems to be the antithesis of Snowden. Snowden’s attitude change toward the invasions of his profession is largely attributed to the influence of Mills, even though he is rarely able to discuss the details of his job with her.
Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald do an excellent job of delving into the details of the intelligence world without ever becoming bogged down in them. The idea that people would either turn a blind eye to or willfully accept things that should be illegal is easier to understand when you’re immersed in the culture of secrecy. And that feeling only grows stronger the longer you’re in the world.
But where the story goes awry is with Snowden himself. While Gordon-Levitt’s performance is uniformly great, Stone seems to skip crucial steps in Snowden’s transformation. Snowden has multiple crises of conscience, both for professional and personal reasons, but he repeatedly goes back for reasons that are left unexplored. And his decision to steal the crucial documents comes almost out of nowhere, as if he decided to do it on a whim.
There are many angles to the Edward Snowden story, and whether he’s a hero or a villain is a subject for great debate. But Snowden only seems interested in exploring one side of the issue when real life is much more complicated.