“Snowden” falls short of its own lofty ambitions

David Rosario, Staff Writer

Making films about the lives of complicated men isn’t exactly uncharted territory for director Oliver Stone. After chronicling former presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and George W.  Bush throughout the course of his career, Stone returns to direct a film that attempts to shed some light on the controversial figure known as Edward Snowden. For the uninformed, Snowden is a former employee of the CIA who copied and later leaked secret government data to the world. Snowden did this knowing that this would make him a refugee, but he was ultimately compelled to let the global community know that the NSA was invading their privacy.

Snowden’s story is one that practically begged to be adapted into a feature film someday and one so ripe with dramatic potential. Adding one of today’s rising stars in, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to play Snowden and a supporting cast that features the talents of Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Nicholas Cage, you then have a recipe for what should be an incredible film. “Snowden” unfortunately never reaches the heights that this story is capable of, but still partly succeeds at challenging people to decide for themselves whether the real Snowden is a hero who deserves pardon or a traitor who should see the inside of a cell.

Rather than starting with the NSA leaks and focusing on the set of circumstances that led to Snowden being granted asylum in Russia, the film begins with a private meeting in Hong Kong that he had with several journalists regarding his plans to leak the documents. After this introduction, the majority of the film consists of flashbacks to Snowden’s time working with the CIA, as well as his personal struggles and romantic relationship with acrobat Lindsay Mills ,played by Woodley. It becomes apparent early on that the film isn’t so much about the leaks as it is about the events in his life leading up to that decision.  

Levitt gives a solid performance, albeit one that is likely to go largely unnoticed during awards season. Aside from the adjustment he made to his voice to sound less like himself and more like the real Snowden, there isn’t much else that he does to disappear into the role, though it is worth noting that Levitt spent time with Snowden in Russia getting to know the man that he would go on to portray.

By far the biggest problem that “Snowden” faces is a lack of focus, leading to some questionable pacing. Time that could have been spent on the political issues is instead dedicated to the love story, which quickly gets old. There are a few scenes dedicated to Snowden’s struggles with epilepsy, but the drama surrounding that illness is mostly left unexplored because those scenes have little to no impact on the rest of the story. Most disappointing of all is that the film fast-forwards some of the more interesting developments following the leaks in a rush to get to the end.
“Snowden” isn’t exactly a failure, but it’s not a great film either. The film works as a fine introduction to this subject matter, but those looking for a more substantial exploration of the Snowden story and his motivations behind his actions have better luck staying home and watching the “Citizenfour” documentary.