The events running up to CIA employee Edward Snowden's decision to reveal the secrets pertaining to CIA and NSA's propensity for civilian surveillance and collection of data to Guardian journalists in 2013 is given the espionage treatment by Oliver Stone. Inviting Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Poitras (Melissa Leo) and MacAskill (Wilkinson) to his Hong Kong hotel room, Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) informs them he was once a gung-ho Special Forces cadet before injury forced him to develop his talent for code and hacking, which doesn't go unnoticed by CIA's Corbin O'Brien (Ifans). As Snowden's star rises and is given more clearance, he discovers that the CIA is using his programs to spy not only on foreign and domestic threats but on everyone…
Snowden isn't a great film but it's the director’s best in a very long time. That's probably down to Stone falling back on the theme that made his most memorable films (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, JFK) so dynamic and engaging: Snowden is a story of a patriot disillusioned by his country's chicanery. It's a subject he's obviously comfortable with and he leaves one in no doubt where he stands on the Snowden as traitor/patriot debate: "This is not about terrorism. Terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic control." Stone is angry again and it suits him. And yet this is a more reserved and quieter affair than the director's past outings, with Stone thankfully pulling the dialogue back from tech-heavy doo-hickey; he probably saw Blackhat and came to the same conclusion we all did: code speak and guy-in-front-of-computer scenes are dull dull dull.
In tune with his director’s dialled down tone, Gordon-Levitt, and his new deep voice, plays within himself but his Snowden is a little too green – surely he's seen an Oliver Stone movie? – and he's outshone by Woodley, playing kept-in-the-dark girlfriend Lindsay, whenever the two are on screen. Ifans is fun as the villain, embracing Stone's vision for the fictitious O’Brien: With his name a nod to 1984 and his black hat, umbrella and long coat a visual link to Donal Sutherland's Black Ops whistle-blower in JFK, Ifan's softly spoken bad guy seems to exist out of time. Nicolas Cage meanwhile is underused as the CIA man banished to the basement for questioning authority.
But Snowden doesn't have it all its own way. The cloak-and-dagger machinations of getting the classified info out of the NSA's grandiose underground bunker isn't given the tense oomph expected; even the close call when he's copying of files – the percentage countdown of file copying has substituted the ticking clock bomb, hasn't it? – isn't given the full whack. If those moments are undercooked, others are stuck to the pan: a web link chat with Ifans, his giant image dwarfing Snowden, is unsettling enough without Ifans asked to lean into the camera, his face filling the entire room to ram home that he's watching Snowden/us.
It mightn't reach the heights of Laura Poitras' Citizenfour but Snowden is an engaging thriller nonetheless.
Review by Gavin Burke | 12:16 | Wednesday 7th December 2016 | Movie Review