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Joseph Gordon-Levitt sweats out a CIA polygraph test in Snowden.

In some ways, Oliver Stone suits an Edward Snowden biopic perfectly. Who better to tell the story of this generation’s foremost government whistle-blower than a paranoid unreconstructed ’60s hippie activist who cherishes subversion and sticking it to The Man, right? Yet Snowden also shows off Oliver Stone’s endemic shortcomings, the bombast and megalomania that has poisoned even his best films and prevented him from making any movies of consequence since the early 1990s. Much as it wants to be consequential, Snowden is a mediocre dramatization of well-documented events, though it is enlivened by a great lead performance.

That comes from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrays Ed starting in 2004, when we see him washing out of Special Forces because of medical issues. His technical wizardry lands him a job at the CIA despite his lack of a high-school diploma, but Ed is appalled when he finds agents using his programs and the intelligence they unearth to screw with the family of a Pakistani banker (Bhasker Patel) until he becomes financially and emotionally dependent on the U.S. government. Ed hops jobs from the agency to the NSA to various contractors, and the more he works, the more he discovers about how much the government is spying on ordinary American and foreign citizens under the guise of stopping terrorism. His disillusionment leads him to a fateful 2013 meeting in a Hong Kong hotel room with documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), an American columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian.

The script, co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, is based on Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files and Anatoly Kucherena’s Time of the Octopus, and as usual, Stone wants to make damn sure you know how meticulously he researched his work. He includes gobs of expositional dialogue and graphics montages laden with jargon from the worlds of computer programming, spycraft, diplomacy, and cryptography. This would be great if he were writing a book about Snowden, but in this film it just impedes the dramatic flow. Stone may trust you to process all the information he’s giving you, but he doesn’t trust you to draw your own conclusions about what’s unfolding on the screen. When Ed’s former CIA boss (Rhys Ifans) video-calls him to intimidate him, his face appears on a 20-foot screen that dwarfs Ed.
When Ed walks out of his job for the last time to do the right thing, he walks into brilliant sunshine with a big smile on his face. These emotional cues are so clumsy that even Snowden’s staunchest supporters might be tempted to yell “Shut up, Stone!” out loud in the theater. The pity is that Stone does well when he abandons the moral posturing and just films this like a spy thriller, as in a late sequence when, having downloaded incriminating files onto a portable drive, Ed promptly drops the thing on the floor just as his co-workers are walking into his office.

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What saves this movie is Gordon-Levitt’s subtle and profound performance as a political conservative being torn apart by his ingrained loyalty to his country and his moral convictions about the bad things that he’s doing. He has a great moment late on when, in response to his photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) asking him why he’s leaving America, Ed simply stands there mutely, unable to answer. Woodley also invigorates a potential cliché role as a supportive partner who can’t take her boyfriend’s secrecy anymore, thanks partly to an early scene at a party in Switzerland where Lindsay proves to be better suited to making spy contacts than Ed. The romantic subplot, seldom a strength for Stone, is one of the best things here, and it’s nice to see Woodley given a part she can work with after all those Divergent movies. Stone likes to fill out his films with small but flashy supporting roles and give them to high-powered actors, and he does so again here (Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Joely Richardson, LaKeith Stanfield, Nicolas Cage). I’ve always appreciated that about this filmmaker.

Still, it’s hard to ignore that Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour is a shorter, tauter, and tenser account of Snowden’s story than this one. Stone’s concerns have sometimes made him seem stuck in the past, but Edward Snowden’s exploits offered him a prime chance to get back on board with a culture that has come around to him again. He lets his chance slip.

[box_info]Snowden
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley. Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone, based on Luke Harding and Anatoly Kucherena’s books. Rated R.[/box_info]

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