Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt has cornered a small market: Dramas by directors who became famous in the 1980s and ’90s and are resurrecting their careers, making handsome but unnecessary spinoffs from Oscar-winning documentaries.
He played wire-walker Philippe Petit last year in Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,” taken from the film “Man on Wire.” Now he’s back as whistle-blower Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s “Snowden.”
In a better world, it might inspire people to see “Citizenfour,” which won an Academy Award last year. In that documentary, which Laura Poitras shot in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room literally on the eve of his stunning revelations, Snowden argues he’s unimportant: What matters is his revelation that the NSA and CIA have pried into the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans illegally.
Stone’s movie, which the director wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald, argues we do need to understand Snowden’s journey from a conservative with deep faith in the government to a man on the run from his country. But Snowden was right.
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The character in “Snowden,” played with buttoned-down solemnity by Gordon-Levitt, somewhat reflects Stone’s own journey. He enlists in the Army, as Stone did, goes to work in security services after a debilitating injury and becomes disillusioned with the government, which he sees as hopelessly intrusive.
Snowden loves a photographer (Shailene Woodley) and attaches himself to two mentors: a charismatic engineer (Nicolas Cage) who has tried to reform the system and been slapped down, and an icy boss (Rhys Ifans) who says, “Most Americans don’t want freedom. They want security. Secrecy is security, and security is victory.”
If that sounds like “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” you won’t be surprised to hear that this character is named O’Brian – like the interrogator, spelled slightly differently, in George Orwell’s novel – and that in one scene, he looms down on Snowden from a wall-sized screen.
Subtle, Stone ain’t. We can’t just learn that Snowden served in the Army; we need a top sergeant screaming abuse at him on an obstacle course before he collapses. When Snowden and another CIA operative set up a Pakistani banker for a fall, they do it not in a restaurant or a posh bar but a strip club, in front of pole dancers.
Yet the director, who celebrates his 70th birthday this week, retains his keen visual sense, and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) takes us through scenes that are sharp or blurry, soft or grainy, realistic or hallucinogenic.
Stone ends with a shot of the real Snowden speaking from Russia, where he has temporary asylum, to a crowd via the Internet. His warnings are trenchant, and his views are accurate: Congress, to which NSA leaders repeatedly lied, finally passed laws to curtail information gathering. But even if you think Snowden is on the side of the angels, “Snowden” isn’t the best way to learn about him.
☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage.
Director: Oliver Stone.
Length: 134 minutes.
Rating: R (language and some sexuality/nudity).