Image Credit to Variety
The last thing we see before Snowden’s end credits sequence is a title card informing us that Edward Snowden resides in Russia, a country he wishes to leave, but cannot because the United States revoked his passport after he stole secret documents and gave them to the press. There’s a pause after this information is revealed before a second sentence appears, telling us that Snowden’s partner, Lindsay Mills-who left him because of the political consequences of his actions-has decided to join him in this foreign land and reignite their relationship.
How you feel about both pieces of information should reveal how much Oliver Stone’s biopic of the famous whistleblower worked for you. The latter information regarding Snowden’s relationship to Mills brought tears to my eyes and a rush of exhilaration to my body; meanwhile, the former information about Snowden’s inability to return barely registered as anything more than a fact. Those two reactions sum up my experience of Stone’s up-and-down film perfectly: he has created a powerful portrait of a rocky relationship between two people who love each other, but struggle to believe in one and other; however, he’s failed to construct an emotional work about Snowden’s relationship to America, a country he loves, but no longer believes in.
Stone’s film begins in Hong Kong with a curiously stiff introduction where Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto in a stunningly accurate performance) and film director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) to give them the documents revealing the US’ spying of Americans and foreigners. From Snowden, Greenwald, and Poitras’ behavior-speaking in code, keeping quiet around crowds, and looking over their shoulders, even in empty hotel hallways-one sees Stone’ desire for these early scenes to be suspenseful. Surprisingly and sadly, they fall flat because Stone doesn’t have a handle on how to create tension here. He supplies no context, no information whatsoever regarding who could follow them, why they’re meeting, how they know each other, and why they must speak privately for these scenes to produce anxiety. Perhaps he believes Snowden’s story is so well known, it need not require such detail, but this relaxed approach just makes the film feel lifeless.
Crushingly, lifeless is apt in describing how the film’s construction of Snowden’s relationship with America feels. Stone hits all the major points of Snowden’s story: his deep patriotism that caused him to join the CIA and NSA, his slow realization of how these agencies abuse their powers (with detailed scenes explaining such abuses), the crisis of conscience this realization brings, and his decision to reveal all he knows. But Stone struggles to provide any drama to these key developments. He sets up narrative stakes by showing how Snowden’s doubts brings him in conflict with his superiors, thus creating the possibility of professional repercussions, but this is undercut by the fact that Snowden’s superiors usually promote him because his brilliance outweighs his disillusionment. Without these stakes, then, the exterior conflict between Snowden and his superiors fizzles out (until the very end of the film) forcing Stone to focus on his interior conflict: on the alienation and depression Snowden feels for not doing the right thing.
Unfortunately, Stone’s filmmaking is just not up to task when it comes to capturing Snowden’s confusion, frustration, and self-loathing. The director relies on sharp sound cues, out-of-focus POV shots, and narration to reveal Snowden’s turmoil, and occasionally, he succeeds. But he lacks commitment and distinctiveness in this approach to make it work for the entire film. Stone only uses these techniques for a few shots in certain scenes, failing to ever spend extended time in Snowden’s paranoid state, and he never adds anything unique to free these choices from the clichés we associate with them. As a result, Snowden’s awful inner struggle can only be glimpsed for a few moments, instead of experienced wholly, thus sapping all the drama and tension out, and turning a moral crisis into a moral choice.
As much as the film mishandles Snowden’s moral displacement, it succeeds at depicting his romantic relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who comes into Snowden’s life after he leaves the military and helps to liberalize his perspective on America. Despite caring for each other, the two struggle to find joy and compassion in their relationship because of the weight Snowden’s job takes on him. His alienation causes him to disconnect from and ignore Lindsay and her needs, but he can’t reach out and tell her why he’s behaving so egregiously because doing so could endanger their lives. Snowden’s entrapped position lends itself to far more drama than anything else in the film because it is a conflict that can only be resolved in two heartbreaking, devastating ways, both of which tug the viewer’s sympathies in conflicting directions: either Snowden keeps to himself and ruins their relationship or he tells Mills the truth and ends their lifestyle, while possibly destroying their lives.
Stone almost nullifies even this brilliant storyline. His admiration for Snowden makes it difficult for Stone to convey Snowden’s selfishness and betrayal of Lindsay’s trust. In fact, Stone glosses over much of how exactly Snowden and Lindsay went from a happy couple to a disillusioned one. Luckily, Woodley and Levitt fill the director’s gaps with terrific performances, conveying pain and anger without saying much. All it takes is a little resentment in her voice and a short list of how little Snowden’s done in their relationship for Woodley to communicate her severe loneliness, and all it takes is a stunned expression from Levitt with an attempt to physically embrace his lover to show Snowden’s guilt at such actions. Later, as the two realize Snowden’s knowledge of the government’s inner workings will likely end their relationship, they communicate their irrational wish to stay together with their eyes in a way that requires them to say nothing with their mouths. Together, Levitt and Woodley nail every major emotion and bring out every little nuance of Snowden and Lindsay’s relationship, making it something powerful, equally heartbreaking in its disappointing turns and inspiring in their refusal to ever let this disappointment engulf their love.
And thank goodness they succeed in depicting Snowden and Lindsay’s love; otherwise, there would be nothing to hold onto from this disappointing and inert biopic. Faced with depicting one of the most important transformations in recent American history, whereby a staunch defender of America saw the abuses of his nation and chose to expose these problems at great risk, Stone has constructed a work that lacks suspense, gravitas, and urgency. He’s whiffed on helping us see Snowden as a man instead of a larger-than-life figure, who we keep at arm’s length from us. In place of this, though, he and his actors have turned a romance, the most overused and worn-out story, into something heartfelt, purposeful, and devastating. There’s no gap between the audience and the couple of Snowden and Mills, which makes the distance between us and Snowden that much more saddening and crushing.