Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Rated 14A
Everything you know about Edward Snowden is wrong, or at least absurdly simplified. That’s the central take-away from Oliver Stone’s surprisingly straightforward depiction of his subject, played with necessary conviction by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is smaller and more wiry than the real deal.
Only 29 when he fled the U.S. in 2013, the NSA analyst was working as a private contractor when he gave Glenn Greenwald a data card containing thousands of documents revealing the extent of Washington’s extralegal spying. So we tend to think of him as being a smaller fish in the shark pool than he really was.
Using Laura Poitras’s chilling Citizenfour as a framing device (with Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, and Tom Wilkinson effective as Poitras, Greenwald, and the latter’s Guardian colleague Ewen MacAskill), Stone and cowriter Kieran Fitzgerald illustrate Snowden’s on-camera recollections with sharply drawn vignettes from his past moving up the intelligence ranks as a straight-shooting soldier, sharp-eyed CIA analyst, terrible field operator, precocious programmer, and, finally, a top NSA data processor in Hawaii.
Standout performances include the usually comic Rhys Ifans as Snowden’s serpentine Agency mentor and Nicolas Cage as a spyware developer who hips him to this closed world’s suffocating politics. Their belly-of-the-beast sequences smack of John LeCarré, with personal ideals rubbing up against cruel and constantly shape-shifting realities in a post–Cold War landscape heightened by Bush-era greed and paranoia. Obama doesn’t pass the smell test either, as the tightrope becomes increasingly treacherous for would-be whistleblowers.
Less engaging and slightly more overblown, in the Stone-ish style, are the domestic travails of Snowden and his dance-instructor girlfriend, played by Shailene Woodley, here returning to the tropical territory of her breakthrough in The Descendants—although the movie’s bunkerlike warren of high-tech spy nests suggests the opposite of paradise. Stone also ramps up artificial tension at the climax, and ends by telling viewers a little too vehemently how to feel about what they just saw. Still, if you come out of Snowden less than angry, you haven’t been paying attention to the 21st century.