The main question regarding Oliver Stone’s new biopic “Snowden” — in addition to whether it’s worth seeing — is whether, compared to the 2014 documentary “Citizenfour,” it’s even relevant.
“Snowden” even begins with a scene of filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) meeting with Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in a Hong Kong hotel room, and starting to film what would become the powerful, Oscar-winning work.
The jaw-dropping “Citizenfour,” now streaming free on Archive.org, contains, as much as any documentary can, the facts of the case.
On the other hand, there is director Stone, who is famous for conspiracy-laden political fictions.
Stone’s great reign ran roughly from 1986 (“Salvador” and “Platoon”) to 1995 (“Nixon”), during which time he attacked the Vietnam War three times and took on the JFK assassination, Wall Street greed, the media’s obsession with killers, and even Jim Morrison.
As he explored corrupt governments or questionable movements, he was like a hunter or an assassin pursuing an already-perceived target.
But after the 1990s, he’s made a few tepid thrillers and a rather benign biopic of George W. Bush. His righteous anger and crackpot appeal seem to have dried up.
His Snowden is more like a lamb, inadvertently stumbling upon the evil that men do.
Despite fine filmmaking and performances, “Snowden” (which Stone cowrote, based on books by Anatoly Kucherena and Luke Harding) is soft. It shows the character through a filtered movie light, as a hero, while briefly acknowledging that a few cranky folks elsewhere think he’s a pest, or a criminal.
The new movie charts Snowden’s career, from his early conservative days hoping to serve his country, to his brief military career, to his idealistic joining of the CIA, to meeting his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).
He’s shocked as he discovers the level at which the U.S. government uses technology to spy on all citizens, not just suspected terrorists.
As he walks out of the government building for the final time with his infamous hidden data, Snowden can’t suppress a big, warm, fuzzy smile.
Yet despite its light touch, “Snowden” is still an interesting, emotional companion piece to “Citizenfour,” in which the real Snowden, in interviews, already had made his decision, and is merely recounting facts.
In Stone’s “Snowden,” we witness his rising, harrowing guilt, and his breaking point. We see how he decides he can no longer work in the system and how he must do something about what he knows.
Still, “Snowden” lacks the sense of danger of the real story. It inspires hope that things can change, but not necessarily the courage to change them.
Two and a half stars
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto
Written by Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
Directed by Oliver Stone
Running time 2 hours, 18 minutes