Review: ‘Snowden’ reveals tale of controversial whistleblower

Above: Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in Oliver Stone's "Snowden" as the title character, Edward Snowden. (Photo courtesy of Open Roads Films) Date Night | 15 Sep, 2016 |

Fact: Edward Snowden is an American hero.

Ok, perhaps that’s more a matter of opinion — but the perception of Edward Snowden is a global issue. The famous dissenter blew the whistle on an invasive NSA surveillance program back in 2013 and our country’s awareness of the government keeping tabs on us has been heightened ever since.

Some accused Snowden of espionage and traitorous activity; others call him a hero. The U.S. government still isn’t very fond of him: he’s currently still holed up in Russia, desperately trying to get a pardon from our nation as I write this. He’s not the only one making a case for the ethical necessity of his 2013 information leak: director Oliver Stone stands firmly by him with this week’s “Snowden.”

Stone is no stranger to capturing essential moments of American history in cinema — he’s the filmmaker behind the seminal movies “Platoon,” “Wall Street,” and “JFK” — but he’s been in somewhat of a creative slump for the past decade. Aside from a well-regarded TV series, Stone’s last handful of projects has been middling or nonessential. “Snowden” is immediately essential due to the still fresh, still ongoing events on which it’s based. But how is it as a movie?

“Snowden” has three primary missions: to show just how Snowden became a willing whistleblower, to solidify his status as a patriot, and to humanize him through his relationship with his girlfriend. The latter two goals are accomplished in spite of the first: Snowden’s emotional depth shines most optimistically when it’s a break from tedium.

“Snowden” the film is just as multifaceted as Snowden the person, but that’s not always a safe bet for a two hour movie. Its tone rises and falls randomly between history lesson and narrative drama, never quite finding a comfortable middle ground. Long segments of the movie are primarily concerned with conveying every possible detail of Snowden’s life. These grow tiresome after a while. They have an intrinsic significance thanks to the story’s exciting relevance, but I doubt these scenes will be just as compelling years from now.

When “Snowden” isn’t trying to be “Citzenfour” (the outstanding documentary about Snowden that Melissa Leo’s camera-toting character is making during this film) plus Joseph Gordon-Levitt, we get a little Shailene Woodley in the mix, and the film is revitalized.

Woodley plays Lindsay Mills, Edward Snowden’s longtime girlfriend. The media objectified Mills after Snowden’s initial dissent, but the movie’s screenplay does much to flesh her out as an audacious fighter and loving partner. Careful portrayal of the relationship between Snowden and Mills adds a dimension of fallible personhood to the titular man. Romanticism repeatedly breathes life into the complex narrative, helping the film thrive on a personal touch.

Even aside from this relationship, “Snowden” succeeds when it submits to sentimentality. The film’s thematic purpose is strong near the beginning when we discover Snowden’s passion for America and value of patriotism. This is lost during the monotonous middle, but by the end of the film Oliver Stone graciously makes the same statement Snowden himself does: America is great, and keeping it accountable will make it greater. It’s sweet; it’s true.

“Snowden” isn’t a great film — the soundtrack feels oddly mismatched, the performances range from nuanced to just muted — but it’s about an exemplary American. If “Snowden” buzz helps bring him home, seeing it is a service to our country.

★★★ (3 out of 5)

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