Despite having great subject material to work from, Oliver Stone was unable to provide the heart-pounding thriller I expected in “Snowden.”
“Snowden” came off as a subjective take on one of the most famous, or infamous, whistleblowers of all time, lacking any punches to really put viewers on the edge of their seats.
“Snowden” opens in The Mira Hong Kong Hotel in China, where Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) is beginning to make her documentary about Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), titled “Citizenfour.” From there, the film goes back and forth between the journalists in the hotel with Snowden and the story that made him a well known figure today, involvement the United States National Security Agency.
Tension is occasionally brought up during the film, but it is never enough to carry through the entire product. There are scenes where the audience feels paranoia about the constantly lurking NSA, but Stone does not capitalize on prime opportunities to invoke a feeling of suspense. Dramatic moments in the history of Snowden’s time attempting to flee Hong Kong and reach Latin America or Russia are brushed over despite potential to provide riveting suspense to the audience.
In a world where every device with a connection to the internet can be used as a tiny piece of spy equipment by the government, the audience somehow does not get any sense the characters in the film are in danger until the climax, and even that is relatively short-lived. Stone sprinkles in little snippets of this feeling as the film progresses, but nearly every opportunity is wasted and quickly dismissed.
Another area Stone struggles with is building depth in his supporting characters. Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) is a flat female character who predictably comes running back to Snowden even after continued displays of impatience with his bouts of depression and frustration over his job. Though this plot line is grounded in reality, Mills and Snowden seem to have a relationship tacked on in an effort to add more drama. The villain in the film, CIA officer Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), and the rest of the people working for the NSA are also portrayed as relatively flat characters.
Too often in film is the protagonist brought in to “do the right thing” only to realize that the perceived ‘right thing’ is actually very wrong. This film suffers from that common trope. Snowden believes he is doing a service to his country by lending them his brain to create platforms with which to spot potential terrorists, only to realize that his talents are being used for nefarious means.
One of the lone bright spots the film is the expertly done cinematography from Academy Award winner Anthony Dod Mantle. The film is shot mostly at night or in dimly-lit office buildings filled only with the flashes of light from the computer screens, and it is not until later in the film when daylight starts to shine through.
In Oliver Stone’s first non-documentary film since 2012, “Snowden” enters with a lot of hype and ultimately fails to deliver when it matters most. During his time as a fugitive and in his final year working at the NSA, Snowden dealt with many pulse-pounding moments which Stone is unable to recreate in this sub-standard biopic. Though Gordon-Levitt deserves praise for his portrayal of the former spy and Dod Mantle should be recognized for his outstanding cinematography, the film comes short of creating an edge-of-your-seat atmosphere that sends the audience home scared that their phone is secretly watching them.
Stone spends too much time trying to develop on a flawed and flat love story when he could have spent more time going over suspense-filled moments in Snowden’s attempts at fleeing Hong Kong. The film is not a complete disappointment, but viewers will leave theaters wondering what could have been if tensioned had been more properly maintained.