Joseph Gordon Levitt's in the middle of an unusual streak. With Snowden, the actor delivers his second dramatic feature that -- while notable on numerous levels -- is deflated because it follows in the footsteps of a superior documentary that covers the same ground.
This happened when Gordon Levitt played Phillippe Petit, the death defying wire walker whose World Trade Center stunt powered the exquisite doc Man On Wire and the less-excellent feature film The Walk. Now there's Oliver Stone's Snowden, which expands the scope of the systematic whistleblower doc Citizenfour, and loses some of the impact of Edward Snowden's brazen accomplishments as a result.
Even those who only casually follow political headlines should know that Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon Levitt) was an NSA analyst whose security clearances and coding accomplishments opened him up to the knowledge that our government uses cutting edge technology to spy on ordinary citizens, all in the name of "national security." Unwilling to accept that as the new normal in our hyper-sensitive War on Terrorism society, Snowden smuggled evidence out of the NSA and turned it over to journalists Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) once he established a trust that they'd share his story with the world.
The nerve-wracking, multi-day ordeal between Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras is laid out, step by painful step, in Poitras' Citizenfour, and the Hong Kong hotel room that was the backdrop of their pivotal conversations is touched on by Oliver Stone in Snowden. But the Platoon and Wall Street director is more interested in bigger picture politics -- as well as the man at the center of the maelstrom -- when assembling Snowden, so this feature film operates as more of a traditional biopic, for better and for worse. Stone and Gordon Levitt offer a dramatization of the key beats in Snowden's controversial life, from his short-lived military career to the romance he established with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) -- a relationship that's still in place to this day, despite the fact that Snowden and Mills live in exile because our government views him as a traitor.
I did wonder, while watching, why a textbook biopic like Snowden worked well (for the most part) when the similarly paranoid Julian Assange story The Fifth Estate fumbled. It boils down to Stone making smart casting decisions at the top in Gordon Levitt and Woodley, then surrounding then with an all-star ensemble that puts a human face on techno-babble hacker jargon that is integral to Edward Snowden's biography. This is a sturdy, stoic and moderately compelling biopic of a patriotic whistleblower, the type of figure in U.S. history that Stone enjoys dissecting. Gordon Levitt is powerful and commanding as Snowden. Leo and Quinto are feverish as Poitras and Greenwald. And Stone even casts Nicolas Cage as his surrogate, of sorts, hiring the World Trade Center collaborator to play an NSA instructor who is slightly paranoid, smart, distrustful and anti-establishment.
Ultimately, the point of Snowden is lost on me, when people can (and should) just watch Citizenfour. But Stone's Snowden does get its messages of privacy invasions and personal revolutions across, loud and clear. Facebook accounts will be deleted following screenings this weekend. Cell phones may get dropped into a fish bowls, and laptops (especially the ones with cameras) could get thrown from the nearest skyscraper. But I don't think it's powerful enough to inspire you to abandon society and move to the isolation of Joshua Tree national state park... unless you already have a tin-foil hat on your head, and Alex Jones on your airwaves as you read this review.