Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Directed by: Oliver Stone (“Savages”)
Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald (“The Homesman”) and Oliver Stone (“Savages”)
As one of the best documentaries of the last several years, “Citizenfour” was an endlessly fascinating fly-on-the-wall account of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blowing the whistle on surveillance that the government was doing. Regardless of the audience’s opinion, the footage was unassailably mesmerizing as history, agree with it or not, was being made. It’s a film that didn’t necessarily need a dramatizing, but as a person, Snowden could stand to be understood and explored. Unfortunately, that’s where the blunt hammer of director Oliver Stone comes in.
Rising through several government agencies, computer analyst Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) notices that the government is gathering information from its own citizens, with access to personal communication, webcams, and more. Torn about what to do, and with his relationship strained, Snowden makes a decision that could land him in jail for treason.
It will probably annoy some viewers, but Gordon-Levitt’s voice work is actually remarkably close to how the actual Snowden sounds. It’s a good performance, in a film of pretty solid performances all around. Shailene Woodley’s character being a strong personality is more of a testament to her capabilities than the way she is written, which can often seem to flip flop from scene to scene.
The most interesting stuff in the film is seeing Snowden slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together and feel drawn to let the public know what was actually going on. There’s a certain psychology behind the decision making and an awakening of a conscience that is touched on, though perhaps not explored enough. The parts of the film that are straight out of “Citizenfour” really seem to drag, however, as it is a re-enactment of something that is not only so recent, but not really adjusted for any type of dramatic effect.
As one might expect, a movie about Edward Snowden directed by Oliver Stone is not exactly an unbiased affair. Stone is very clear in his position about how he sees Snowden. While it is never quite preachy, one of the most fascinating parts about the story of Snowden is that there’s a real, honest debate and divide around the country about the appropriateness of his actions. Presenting the information and letting the public decide for themselves was the crux for the decision that Snowden made. Without that debate, the movie feels extremely one-sided and doesn’t allow audiences to make their own decision.
“Snowden” isn’t necessarily a bad film, but it is one that is riddled with problems. It is painfully boring in parts, and it is anything but neutral. The fact of the matter is, “Citizenfour” is such a compelling film, and a better representation of this story, that the dramatization falls way short of the goals. The decision to show Snowden’s actions through the lens of his personal relationships really hurts a film that could have been an exploration into why the biggest whistleblower in history did so. It’s a shame that the character of Snowden isn’t more interesting.