Calling something “glacial” always was a bit of an unintended compliment. It implied that it at least wanted to move, to go somewhere with its ambitions. (Plus it gave you an excuse to think about actual glaciers.) That’s why it feels unfair to call Snowden—across its 134 painfully uneventful, uninterested minutes–even that.
It is the antithesis of what one of the most momentous stories of our generation deserves, though wholly representative of where writer/director Oliver Stone has landed as a filmmaker. What it could have been—or rather, what it should have been—constantly circles the drain while other, seemingly and genuinely disconnected portions of the narrative get propped up on nothing. It’s like a house of cards that never gets past the first level because Stone decided the table wasn’t necessary.
Perhaps the problem is that the perspective of this particular story feels almost too obvious in the same way last year’s Steve Jobs took the easy way out on its portrayal of a so-called tortured genius. The movie Snowden follows the real life person Edward Snowden from when he is discharged from Special Forces candidacy in the US Army Reserve to when he shacks up with The Guardian to publish NSA documents and flees the country. It follows the general arc of a patriotic almost-hero slowly becoming disillusioned with his own country and becoming the morally superior outlaw of the modern age.
And there’s nothing wrong with taking the slant on the story because, well, those are the facts, for the most part. This certifiable genius wanted to serve his country in a way few others did or do, and when his body wouldn’t allow him, he let his prodigious mind continue to surpass the bar set by many others. Opening that trailer with calling him both a hero and a traitor is a bit on the nose but not inaccurate.
To play up the espionage thriller aspects is pretty much a gimme. This was an actual thing that happened that contains all the necessary ingredients to be exactly that: the country he loved turned out to be betraying its own citizens in a cyber war it never asked for or knew about, so he betrayed it, too, for the singular purpose of rectifying what few saw and even fewer attempted. It culminates in a thrilling theft of personal and national and global stakes amidst rampant paranoia and overwhelming sacrifice.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t do anything interesting with this rife material. Except it is pretty exceptional at how quickly and effectively it turns tedious. With even a passing understanding of Snowden’s endeavours, mostly gained by walking by TV news reports of the events and glazing over website headlines, you get what’s happening. And then the movie doesn’t ever go beyond that, as if it didn’t ever bother doing more than exactly that. It throws in an insipid and tiresome interpretation of his consistent yet tumultuous relationship, but that’s about it.
From the get-go, we just have a hero. We have a hero that isn’t just destined to be one but a hero that already is one. His flaws are that, I dunno, he has weak legs and might be too good recovering from continually ruining the relationship with his girlfriend. There are no layers to him as a person. He is a thing that simply goes through a sequence of extraordinary events that feels more like a historical reenactment of a résumé than spy thriller.
He is a shell of accomplishments, which is anathema to a compelling story. If you look at The Social Network, it took this similarly real life person and a very real story and imbued it with a hyper specific viewpoint of both things. Everything was consequential from precisely how both self-destructing and propelling Zuckerberg was as a person, from his broken, completely shattered relationships to his previously unfathomable success. He was a complex and totally engrossing combination of antagonist and protagonist.
Now compare that to Snowden and we have nothing approaching that level of intrigue. We have just a shining light bursting forth through some mildly dark clouds. Even the obvious antagonist of the USA isn’t all that compelling; it’s faceless entity that just does some stuff he wants to stop. The movie doesn’t ask questions about any of it, instead relying on a few sparse scenes telling how to feel about domestic spying, drone attacks, and secret courts, none of which are even sufficiently explained in terms of sides or consequences. Even if you are an ardent, actively protesting opponent to drone usage in the Middle East, you’ll view this with a completely blank face.
It’s hard to even appreciate the acting on display in this film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt manages to be both representative and unique in his portrayal of Snowden, being both homely yet inviting, effacing but confident. And Shailene Woodley as Lindsay Mills continues her streak of playing characters in a relationship in such a way that makes you think she actually is in one with you. She has this incredible ability to make herself feel completely open to the audience, as if she can at any moment just rip her own heart out and just give it to you.
The best scenes, though, oddly have nothing to do with her as instead they are journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) locked in an unassuming hotel room, figuring out what it means to break this story. It’s just a box of raw acting exercises, rapid exchanges of fire and ice and conflicting and complementary intent. These, in fact, are pretty much the only interesting scenes of the whole movie.
And all of this acting praise is in spite of the writing, which is somehow both exhausting and uninformative. It’s never clunky or painful, but it is exceptionally pointless. Arguments between Snowden and Mills are predictable in both their timing and their outcome. The foils Snowden encounters in his multiple careers are shallow and not particularly polarizing either. It drags out all the wrong parts into exposition while turning topics that don’t matter into personal mysteries.
At the very least, this film is executed perfectly fine. Sound, cinematography, directing, acting. It’s all just fine. Unfortunately, it completely botches two of the biggest parts of not what makes a movie but what makes a story, and that is characterization and motivation. Both of those are in such short supply, it’s barely a story at all. If you want to watch something about Snowden, go with 2014’s Citizenfour, Poitras’ actual end result of her time with the man. It is spectacular. Snowden, however, is a mess, and not even an interesting one.
Final Score: 5 out of 10