When it comes to the ongoing hot-button story of the former NSA employee responsible for the biggest leak of top secret information in American history, who better to helm the big screen dramatisation than Oliver Stone? After all, a significant portion of the director’s filmography shows an affiliation for controversial issues; whether it’s tackling Vietnam (Platoon), delving into governmental conspiracies (JFK), questioning the political legacies of former presidents (Nixon) or even sticking it to still-sitting presidents (W.), this is a filmmaker who has never shied away from standing up to the establishment.
What a surprise then to find that Stone’s Edward Snowden biopic is an unremarkable, inoffensively toothless affair that lacks both pace and pulse. By putting the man in context and chronicling Snowden’s evolution from pro-government intelligence officer to whistleblower via extensive use of flashbacks, the director doesn’t dumb down the material so much as flatten it. He and his co-scribe Kieran Fitzgerald play it too safe with a by-the-numbers screenplay that chooses to make Snowden’s romantic life a key feature of the narrative. Consequently, the intrigue is dampened by several scenes de ménage and formulaic beats which siphon away much of the story’s urgency.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is without doubt the film’s ace in the hole: he looks the part and convincingly mimics the divisive figure’s speech cadence and intonations. However, his best efforts can’t prevent Snowden from feeling superfluous, a sentiment bolstered by the fact that the definitive film on Edward Snowden already exists: not only is Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour far superior to Stone’s dramatised effort, the once-provocative filmmaker simply rips off certain shots from the Oscar-winning documentary, and uses them to bookend the flashbacks.
It is true that multiplex audiences tend to dismiss documentaries outright, preferring fictionalised accounts. However, while the issues at the heart of this story are important enough to pander to the mainstream in the hope that a wider audience will fuel more debates over the actions of the US government and mass surveillance, Stone’s film only serves as evidence that certain topics are fiction-proof. Some stories are so self-sufficiently thrilling that a glossy spin on the original documentary only shows Hollywood at its most artificial: just as 2013’s The Fifth Estate struggled to compete with Alex Gibney‘s eye-opening We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, so Snowden ends up as an uninvolving footnote to the thrillingly insightful Citizenfour. Poitras’ non-fiction made you hurry home to tape up your laptop camera; Stone’s fiction is more likely to leave you wondering whose genius idea it was to commission Peter Gabriel for an original song that features the lyrics “There’s no safe place to go / Now you’ve let that whistle blow.”
Snowden | Directed by Oliver Stone (USA, 2016) with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley. Starts September 22.