Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' Fails To Create Drama From The Whistleblower's Real Story

The most revealing moment in CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning documentary about her encounter with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, comes when Snowden helps journalist Glenn Greenwald fix a tech problem on his laptop. Snowden's calm, almost bemused voice is instantly recognizable to anyone interacting with the office IT guy. The moment comes off as so mundane one might not realize how crucial it is to Poitras' film—and how different Oliver Stone has envisioned him in Snowden. There was nothing particularly extraordinary or even heroic about Snowden's manner, only the action he took in revealing them.

Played by a twitchy Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a voice pitched from his gut, the Snowden of Stone's film aims to match the man's personal story with his actions. Stone paints him within a 21st Century spy story as a globe-trotting intelligence analyst and a daredevil who challenged the system. It deliberately mimics Stone's 1989 film Born On The Fourth of July, where Tom Cruise's All-American, patriotic Vietnam vet finally became disillusioned with his government and decided to protest against it. But Snowden's story is too broad, and Stone's filmmaking has tempered quite a bit since his heyday of JFK and Nixon. While Stone aims for great drama, he doesn't manage to transcend the mundane reality of both the intelligence community and those who empowered it.

Like any major production, the film mostly works as a parade for A-list Hollywood actors to step in for bit parts. Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto fill in as Poitras and Greenwald; Timothy Olyphant slides shady glances as a CIA agent; Shailene Woodley puts on a game face to give some personality to Snowden's girlfriend Lindsay Mills; and (in two roles invented for the film) Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage take sides as yin-and-yang mentors for the budding hacker. But beyond Ifan's bottom-of-the-belly voiced diatribes, none of the actors really dig their teeth. The Southern drawls, outlandish screams and not-so-mild-mannered gestures that fuel Stone's best films are sorely missed. Even Gordon-Levitt's central performance, a collection of mild-mannered tics, feels sedated.

Many of these problems draw out of Stone's approach. After a series of tedious projects (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, World Trade Center), 2012's Savages felt like somewhat of a return to form: a beergut B-movie beating a drum of both hokum and horror. Snowden instead aims for respectability, and in doing so looks anonymous. Beyond occasional security camera or GoPro shots evoking the surveillance state, the staging of actors feels downright lazy; dialogue sequences drone on with lazy shot-reverse shot editing that never engages the intrigue or drama. Even during Gordon-Levitt's expository monologues about the surveillance state, the quick, flashy editing and CGI-aided montages feel rather rote. These moments clearly evoke the old Stone, the rabble-rouser whose diatribes at least felt daring, but here they feel like addenda to Snowden's personal morality.

Stone continually paints Snowden as an extraordinary genius at his work and later a lone wolf, his inner conflict emerging through the nagging relationship with Lindsay who just cannot understand his inner demons. In short, his story reflects that of a singular Great Man, almost accomplishing the opposite of what Poitras set to do with her intimate CITIZENFOUR. While both Poitras and Stone argue Snowden is a patriot instead of a traitor, Stone tries to fit him into a tradition of Hollywood heroes, losing everything unique about the real man along the way. Snowden himself might not agree (he appears in a cameo at the end), but the film loses its subject's voice in service of drama.

Since Snowden does little to explicate the issues of security that its title character protested against, one might argue that the film's aims are inspirational. But because it feels so generic for an individual whose genius is beyond that of the common man, it falls into the same category of the equally droll Alan Turring biopic The Imitation Game—great men do great things while the rest can only helplessly look on. Near the end, Snowden's heroic walk into white light literally dissolves the image of his body, reminding us that his role here is simply a spectacle, a sight to gawk at instead of understand.

Snowden opens everywhere on Friday.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.