For the last decade, Oliver Stone has desperately tried to stay relevant and borderline controversial. He tackled 9/11 less than five years later with World Trade Center, created an analysis of a still-sitting President with W., and went back to the economy to state that maybe greed isn’t always good with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Instead of the provocateur we originally saw in films like Natural Born Killers or JFK, Stone’s films have become fairly even-handed, right-down-the-middle stories that don’t challenge us, opting for straightforward dramas. The most surprising aspect of Stone’s recent output might just be that they’re coming from Stone himself.
Taking on the story of Edward Snowden makes perfect sense for Stone; it’s an ideal link to his earlier work of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, films where men question their involvement in the government they once trusted. But this combination of Stone’s older interests and his modern, generic storytelling creates a film that is conventional, occasionally bland, yet still somewhat captivating.
Snowden—written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald—tells Snowden’s story through two different timelines. The first shows Snowden’s induction into working for the U.S. government, going chronologically through his life and career, as we watch his growing suspicions of criminal activity and wrongdoing. The second jumps to 2013, when Snowden met with documentarian Laura Poitras and reporter Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong to reveal the information he had captured and wanted the public to see.
Maybe it’s because the far superior documentary Citizenfour already told this second timeline, or that Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto as Poitras and Greenwald, respectively, seem miscast, but this latter part of the story always brings Snowden to a screeching halt. This half of the story also feels like Joseph Gordon-Levitt still trying to get a grasp of Snowden as a character. In the earlier glimpses at Snowden’s life, his portrayal fascinates, and side-by-side comparisons of the actor and the real man are shockingly similar. Yet in the 2013 timeline, Gordon-Levitt sounds more like Nathan For You’s Nathan Fielder than Snowden.
Gordon-Levitt—between Snowden and his performance as Philippe Petit in last year’s The Walk—seems too dedicated to nailing every single vocal tendency and tic of the real life person, rather than doing something of his own. While not as distracting as his Petit, once Gordon-Levitt fully finds the character, his performance in Snowden is one of his best in years. While many of Snowden’s casting choices seem odd, such as Shailene Woodley as Snowden’s long-time girlfriend Lindsay Mills and Nicholas Cage as one of Snowden’s teachers, the cast does their finest with a script that doesn’t challenge them.
Thankfully, most of Snowden takes us through the minutiae that Citizenfour didn’t tell, the buildup of Snowden from a dedicated Republican blindly trusting his government into the man that revealed horrifying classified information to the world. As with W., Snowden often becomes a biopic that attempts to hit all the major landmarks of this person’s life to show who they’ve become.
Stylistically and structurally, this film is not inventive in the slightest. But as a basic telling of the story, Snowden is rarely boring, especially since the true story would be hard to screw up. Stone might have become less compelling than he once was, but he’s still a talented filmmaker who knows how to tell an alluring story, albeit in a much quieter way than he once did. Even though Snowden constantly winds through its blueprint that Citizenfour already told this story years ago—and much better—Snowden is still a decent enough that it fills in the blanks, without the flash and excitement that once was synonymous with Stone’s work.