Edward Snowden, who cast himself as the hero of his own spy movie, gets the real thing in Oliver Stone's Hollywoodized biopic of the National Security Agency whistleblower.
Who but an avid John le Carre reader would bring a Rubik's Cube to the lobby of a Hong Kong hotel as a signal for his clandestine meeting with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras? With preternatural self-awareness, Snowden knowingly stepped into a new life: a digital-era Deepthroat, a technocrat ready to don a trenchcoat.
As a protagonist, Snowden (as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doesn't have the brawn of Bourne or the style of Bond. But he carries with him a moral certainty that, it turns out, can do much more. Stone's "Snowden" seeks to frame its well-known subject as a patriot, charting his journey from unquestioning son of a proud military family to brave practitioner of civil disobedience for a greater American good.
It's the kind of combination — Stone and Snowden — that one might go into with apprehension: Just what paranoid conspiracy theories is he going to throw at me THIS time? There's something too on the nose about the pairing.
But the surprise of "Snowden" is that Stone, master of left-wing political thrillers, plays it fairly straight. "Snowden" isn't a liberal screed, or at least not an overt one. It's a sincere, straightforward biopic that, at its worst, verges on hagiography.
That "Snowden" is conventional needn't be such a bad thing. "Snowden," carried by Gordon-Levitt, captures the rise of surveillance by viewing it through Snowden's initially innocent eyes.
Some, of course, would argue against presenting Snowden this way, at all. The movie, perhaps ironically, isn't actually tailored for the choir, but is designed to inform — about Snowden, himself, and the intelligence community he was a part of.
Penned by Kieran Fitzgerald and Stone, the film is organized as flashbacks of Snowden's life, looking back from that Hong Kong hotel room in 2013. The scenes of the data leak meetings inevitably disappoint. Today's docudramas have it hard, given how extensively many events are captured and imprinted in our memories. But "Snowden" has it harder since Poitras' own camera took us literally into that room, resulting in the Oscar-winning documentary "Citizenfour."
"Snowden" has backstory on its side, though, beginning with Snowden's military training at Fort Bragg (cut short by injury) and leading into his ascent at the CIA. "What's your sin of choice?" he's asked. "Computers," he replies.
He's taken under the wing of a hardnosed, all-seeing boss (an excellent Rhys Ifans) and is inspired by the more cynical musings of a CIA teacher hidden away in a basement (Nic Cage, perfect). Snowden begins to notice that getting ahead at the CIA is not necessarily connected with abiding by the rules.
And as he jumps from job to job, Snowden also sees a wider war covertly gathering. Even while what's referred to as "a short-term war" in Iraq is raging, attention is fixed on a below-the-surface intelligence battle with China and Russia. As the size of the NSA dragnet, not just abroad but at home, comes into focus, Snowden's concern grows and becomes personal. Soon he's taping over the laptop camera of his girlfriend (Shailene Woodley). She says she can see his "inner liberal" growing.
There are exaggerations and composites here that may have diluted away from a more interesting reality, one populated less by stock spy-thriller caricatures. But most of our spy movies now trade heavily off of Snowden's revelations and the threat of governmental surveillance; the recent "Jason Bourne" was set specifically in a "post-Snowden" world.
It seems only fair Snowden should get his own close-up, too.
"Snowden," an Open Road Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language and some sexuality/nudity." Running time: 134 minutes.