Snowden (2016) (Review)

Probably a little on the young side to understand the full implications of a major exposure of the USA's government at the time, Edward Snowden's story and actions has now been made into a biopic thriller, with Oliver Stone at the helm and Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing the controversial figure who leaked thousands of classified documents for public consumption. I have been fully aware of the name for a time now, both through his continued media presence and the fact the name is continually bounded around spy franchises such as Jason Bourne - but still felt I needed more insight on. Does Snowden do that, and if so, to what degree of success?

When Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) begins to realise that everything is not as it seems - and does not seem morally correct - he leaves his job at the National Security Agency. With illegal software being utilised by the American government to spy not only terrorist groups and foreign goverments, but their own citizens too, Snowden makes the decision to leak this classified information to the public. With his own life on the line, as well as his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), questions begin to arise as to whether he is a patriot or traitor to his nations, and Snowden finds himself on the wrong side of the law and as a fugitive for his actions.

At the centre of this story is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's nuanced performance of the controversial figure and he manages to craft a performance that suitably straddles the 'traitor' and 'patriot' tag - a question central to Snowden's actions and his media personality, if rarely well-realised in the film. It never indulges too much in lionising the character or placing him on a pedestal, nor does it paint him as a criminal of treason; in this sense, it's smart enough to allow audiences to formulate their own opinions and give them the freedom to debate amongst themselves after the credits have rolled. It's a well-balanced character predominantly down to Levitt's portrayal of him. The rest of the cast is generally well-rounded with a fair bit of talent involved: Shailene Woodley powers through with a decent performance, despite the script's fumbling around as to whether she should be an individual, head-strong woman or simply a loyal girlfriend and rarely succeeding in either. Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Rhys Ifans all serve their purpose too and in fact, the cast are the strongest element in this film, ensuring the wheels keep moving even when the story and momentum grinds to a halt.

Deciding to go down the 'flashbacks infused into the present day' route, Stone's decision is a misguided one as rather than building momentum and tension as we head for the finale it greatly disrupts the pace of the film, preventing any building tension from ever hitting fever pitch. It's a story that should be pulsating with thrills and tautness, yet Snowden never manages to achieve this and its rather monotonous and formulaic play-out does little to alleviate the overall weak script - frustratingly so when the story deserves it to. That's not to say the film isn't sprinkled with some fine scenes that at least offer some respite to the otherwise slowness of the picture, but they do not come along often enough to make the whole thing feel worthwhile (especially when you strip out the lead performance). It seems to place the wrong emphasis on the aspect that would make a compelling film, playing the whole thing very safe, with a looming sense of familiarity and conventionality - even down to the 'don't get caught copying sensitive documents!' - that prevents it from breaking into anything other than a 'watchable' biopic. It simply plays out as a courtesy rather than with genuine interest in the subject matter.

For all its flaws, at least Snowden has a remarkable central performance, a supporting cast with solid talent, a decent score and the odd sporadic burst of promise. If you want to learn more about this intriguing figure, you can go one or two ways - check out this film which, at two hours and fourteen minutes, is already half an hour too long or read the Wikipedia page for this man. One cannot help but feel frustrated at Snowden's inability to craft a more engaging and compelling story for such an interesting figure and story, hampered by a bizarre structure that interrupts the pace and momentum and an inflated runtime that could easily be slashed by half or three quarters of an hour at least.


Summary: Snowden features Joseph Gordon-Levitt's sensational and nuanced performance of an intriguing and exciting public figure - but the filmmakers cannot programme the same sort of coding.

Highlight: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is the best thing about this middling biopic.