CIA employee Edward Snowden leaks thousands of classified documents to the press.
If Edward Snowden didn’t exist, Oliver Stone might have invented him. One can imagine a Stone film about a former employee of the U.S. government who becomes disillusioned with his country when he learns the depth of its deceit. In fact, that last sentence could describe a few Stone films, and so “Snowden” has been widely anticipated as a return to form for the director of masterpieces like “Platoon,” “JFK” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” It’s his first film in four years and his first with a true story behind it in almost a decade (“W.”).
History will recognize Stone as one of the most important cinematic historians when it comes to the stories of his country, from Vietnam to Richard Nixon to 9/11. And so it makes perfect sense that he would be attracted to the story of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed the scope of just how little privacy we have in a post-9/11 world. Stone made the very smart move to hire a committed, underrated actor to play the challenging lead role, and the result is a film that thrives off its central performance. Some of the elements around that performance are a bit lacking, especially the script, but there’s an energy here that Stone hasn’t had in a few films, as if he’s been enlivened by a subject he was destined to document.
“Snowden” actually opens with a scene that will be very familiar to viewers of the Oscar-winning “Citizenfour”—that film’s director, Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) are going to meet Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who then recounts the last few years of his life under extreme cover (cell phones go in the microwave, for example). The structure of Kieran Fitzgerald and Stone’s script essentially alternates between three stories—the story of Snowden’s discovery of his government’s highly intrusive and global surveillance; the story of Snowden’s romance with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and how it was impacted by his top-secret jobs; and the story of the release of what Snowden knew, as documented in “Citizenfour.” All three arcs have that “JFK”-esque tendency to have even the smallest roles filled by recognizable faces: Rhys Ifans, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant, Joely Richardson, Logan Marshall-Green, Keith Stanfield, Ben Chaplin and more pop up throughout the complex story.