If you've seen Citizenfour, the gripping 2014 documentary about Edward Snowden directed by Laura Poitras, Oliver Stone's dramatization, Snowden, which opens in wide release Friday, may feel like a rehash.
Citizenfour transpired almost exclusively in a room at Hong Kong's Hotel Mira, where whistleblower Edward Snowden delivered a trove of top-secret documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill from The Guardian while Poitras filmed. It showed Snowden himself justifying his actions in real time, explaining highly sophisticated surveillance terminology to bewildered reporters, and experiencing intense flashes of paranoia when, for instance, his room phone rang or the hotel's fire alarm went off unexpectedly. It took pains to explain the significance of the information Snowden released — still somewhat of a mystery, a few years after the fact — and clearly articulated a position against Big Brother-type government incursions on privacy. It also featured moments of humanity. Snowden had become a political talking point by then but he was, after all, just a 29-year-old man; just "Ed," a guy who pulled a sheet over his head to enter his computer passwords and who fussed with his hair in the hotel mirror before exiting in disguise.
Snowden, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role, is a standard biopic that uses the Mira Hotel meeting as an inciting event. Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Poitras (Melissa Leo) need to know who this whistleblowing crusader is, before they rock the world with his information, and Snowden obliges.
Snowden's life is then conveyed through flashback. It is the story of a patriot's political conversion, of an IT wizard who, the deeper he gets within the government's intelligence agencies, the more troubled he becomes by their corruptions of programs designed to combat terrorism. As directed by Stone (W., JFK, World Trade Center), the film is extremely political, and the angle is not nuanced. Can you guess whose side he's on?
Shailene Woodley plays Snowden's longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, and like any CIA personal relation, is vexed by her beau's daily stresses and paralyzed by her own lack of intel. Both Gordon-Levitt and Woodley give extra-creditable performances in their leading roles. Gordon-Levitt approximates Snowden's voice and demeanor with aplomb. There's a moment early in their courtship where Lindsay wants to take a photo of Ed "strutting his stuff," doing a catwalk in a D.C. park. Snowden does a goofy walk and instantly gets self-conscious. It's a moment that feels carved from real life, as does the flirty bickering that attends falling in love with someone across the political aisle.
The film dramatizes Snowden's career in much greater detail than Citizenfour could, and provides more tangible glimpses at the programs Snowden opposed — more tangible than acronyms, at any rate.
Given short shrift, though, are the journalistic episodes. Though they risked re-treading on Citizenfour, the hotel scenes are nonetheless the movie's weakest. The heated conversations with New York editors are never really all that clear. And heroic Glenn Greenwald scans here as an angry, non-empathetic twerp who's out of his depth, a huge contrast from the measured and deeply probing journalist in Citizenfour, whose primary goal was not to quickly disseminate information, but to ensure that Snowden knew the magnitude of his actions, and of the consequences.