Spy biopic drones on.

The story of Edward Snowden has always seemed tailor-made for the movies. The case of the patriotic soldier-turned-computer-geek-turned-CIA-employee-turned-whistleblower presents a compelling portrait of a man struggling to find a stance on the increasingly shifting grounds of our contemporary world. Instead of allowing himself to be simply pushed down the various channels that were presented for him, however, Snowden became that rare thing: an insider with a conscience; someone who turned against the institutions that had nurtured him. The ensuing flight to Hong Kong in 2013; the publishing of top-secret data; the extradition fights; the revoked passport; the grounded planes; the airport stranding; the eventual asylum in Moscow - all of this was fascinating as it unfolded on the nightly news in 2013; better than a spy movie. Transposing all this action to the big screen would, one would think, be a natural move.

Unfortunately, Snowden, the new Oliver Stone biopic, captures very little of this intrigue and tension. It’s really quite remarkable - given the subject matter and the movie’s running time (two hours and nineteen minutes, of which you feel every second) - that Snowden turned out to be so, well, dull. The movie begins in 2004, when Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), then training for the Special Forces, breaks both legs and has to reorient his life toward a career in the CIA. We then follow him and his girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) through their meeting in DC and their various career relocations to Geneva, Japan, Maryland, and finally Hawaii. Many of the scenes included in this journey are frankly superfluous, or at least much too long and drawn-out. The essential character narrative is one that most of us are at least basically familiar with: Snowden - initially a ‘smart conservative’ who supports (or at least does not oppose) the wars in the Middle East and refers to George W. Bush as, “Our Commander in Chief” - gradually becomes more and more agitated by the practices he’s exposed to in the CIA and later the NSA, and eventually blows a monumental whistle. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance here is compelling. He nails the jerky movements and speech of a classic computer geek (“People always said I was a bit of a robot,” Snowden comments near the end of the film) but injects enough believable humanism into the role that the audience can see the person lurking behind the tech-speak of algorithms and interfaces. Some of the film’s most interesting moments come when these two sides of Snowden battle it out, and we watch him swallowing hard with eyes darting frantically around the room: an awkward person put in a very awkward situation. Yet perhaps it was Snowden’s very awkwardness; his status as a perennial outsider - unlike his handsome, smooth-talking former-jock boss at the NSA, or his authoritative, upright superior officers at the CIA - that allowed him to do what he did. In fact, throughout the film, it’s the computer geeks who show the most heart.

This may be one of Snowden’s few subtleties. In most cases, however, not a single important moment is allowed to go past without being painstakingly overstated. In one scene, Snowden and Lindsay host a backyard BBQ for her birthday, with a small glow-in-the-dark drone whirling above them in the night sky (apparently such devices are increasingly popular at parties, to take pictures from above and generally add to the festivities, although I admit I can’t see the appeal in the age of civilian drone strikes). As Snowden’s NSA friends talk about taking out a child via drone strike, and then a week later, the child’s mourning funeral party, it’s hard not to feel a chill of horror in your heart. “But,” says his colleague, “you go home, kiss your wife, go to sleep, get up and go to work the next day. You get used to it.” It’s an interesting, if not wildly original, moment to consider the banality of evil. But then - just in case we didn’t think of that! - Snowden himself weighs in with a historical lecture on the Nuremberg trials. And then, to really ram the point home, the glow-in-the-dark drone suddenly crashes into the party from above. OK, OK. I think we got it.

Given all these movie cliches, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the film is most gripping when seen (in brief snatches) through the lens of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who holes up in the Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden and two journalists from the Guardian. With all the blockbuster slickness stripped away, and the everyday clutter of life (takeaway cartons, cans of drink, rumpled blankets) surrounding him, Snowden’s character is more compelling. In fact, the whole segment in Hong Kong - and the next twenty minutes or so, during which his attempts to find asylum are rushed through somewhat formulaically - make for far more interesting viewing than the two hours preceding. The directors seemed to almost abandon any attempt at suspense - perhaps at one level an understandable move, given that we all know how the story ends, but also a missed opportunity. So too was the camerawork: in a story where the role of cameras is so integral (Snowden himself develops a pathological dislike of being photographed), the filmmakers had the chance to do some interesting things with suggestive shots and angles. Once again, however, what might have been suggestive ended up being virtually shouted from the rooftops, and the moment for interesting subtleties was well and truly lost. 

A saving grace of Snowden - aside from the performances, which are all agile - is the fact that it does bring home the horror of NSA data collection in a very real way. For people like me, who ‘know’ that governments spying on people is bad, but perhaps do not really feel the true extent of just how bad it is, Snowden is a welcome reminder. If you want to know more and feel more about this problem, your best bet might be to go and see the movie. It’s just a pity that doing so involves nearly two and a half hours of heavy-handed cliches, which largely trample over a story so very worth telling.

- Joanna Horton

Movie Details

Title: Snowden
Director: Oliver Stone