Oliver Stone’s biopic details Edward Snowden’s post-college rise within the ranks of the CIA and the NSA, his relationship with partner Lindsay Mills and the moment when, in 2013, he blew the whistle on his employer’s illegal mass surveillance operations. It’s a well-known story, and the main problem with the film is its predictability: if you know about Snowden or you’ve seen Laura Poitras’s excellent documentary Citizenfour – which covered Snowden during his initial time in the eye of the storm – there are only a couple of presumably fabricated incidents here to really give you a frisson of extra excitement, unless you count being surprised by a Nicolas Cage appearance as ‘thrilling’.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt does quite well in the lead role, emphasising Snowden’s techy geekiness throughout, but also doing that thing where he looks a bit blank behind specs, meaning you’re often not really sure what he’s thinking. (To that end, surely he’s perfect for one of those android or robot roles that Jude Law and Fassbender have tried out for size.) Opposite the lead, Shailene Woodley gets short shrift as Lindsay, whose conversations with Ed are only ever about his work and how his work is impinging on their relationship; surely there must be more to a relationship between a couple who have been together for so many years and who remain together today, during Snowden’s elongated stay in Moscow. She gets to talk about her own photography work once or twice as Stone seeks to convince us (and fails) that this character is modelled on an actual person.
Other cast members fare worse. As Poitras, Melissa Leo is only ever required to utter a few words of kind, mumsy encouragement to Snowden while he’s holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, revealing his information to the world. Zachary Quinto plays journo Glenn Greenwald, and it’s no exaggeration to state that a piece of cardboard could have been inserted in his place and the film wouldn’t be any worse off, while Tom Wilkinson fares slightly better as the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill, trumping all by coming off as being slightly believable. Elsewhere you’ve got a couple of scenes with Cage overacting, Rhys Ifans as a mentoring CIA bigwig and LaKeith Stanfield in yet another minor role, this time as one of Snowden’s fellow NSA operators. Stone tries to cover up the thin supporting characterisation with occasionally exciting sequences, such as Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong, but the fact is this has little of the intrigue and tension of Poitras’s documentary, which grappled with the ethics of journalism and filmmaking extremely well, revealed much about surveillance -and security, and presented a fascinating glimpse into the mundane realities surrounding an international media storm, among other things. There are some flashy computer effects and reflections of screens and the like here, to stop the mind from wandering, but this all seems a little dated now. Overall it’s a mixed bag: not awful, but a rote Hollywood thriller, and your tolerance for it will probably depend on how much your political views align with Stone’s; he has little-to-no time for anti-Snowden arguments. (**½)