Oliver Stone, our national cinematic conspiracy theorist and all-around anti-establishment auteur, digs deep into the latest and most illuminating political scandal of our times with this taut and entertainingly paranoia-inducing biopic-cum-technophobic history lesson about the NSA's Public Enemy and Global Fugitive No. 1. At first, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seemed an odd choice to play Edward Snowden, the introverted, nerdy government contractor who pulled the curtain away from the U.S. government's all-seeing, all-surveilling extralegal wizardry back in 2013.
It seems like ages since the young CIA employee and Booz Allen Hamilton contractor's alarming revelations of illicit homeland spycraft were revealed in concert by UK newspaper The Guardian and The Washington Post (and soon after by Der Spiegel and The New York Times). Gordon-Levitt, however, nails the part completely, physically hunching down into himself and getting Snowden's halting, thoughtful speech patterns just right, while Stone, working with screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald, creates a whirlwind ride nearly but not quite worthy of The Parallax View-era conspiracy thrillers.
But of course, this is real life, not just ranty, Alex Jones-esque Sturm und Drang. Because Snowden's revelations and his subsequent flight from the clutches of American military justice in a secretive FISA court to Russia, of all places, has already been documented exhaustively. Stone structures his film via revealing flashbacks. It begins with a furtive, clandestine meeting between Snowden, filmmaker-activist Laura Poitras (who directed 2014's Oscar-winning Snowden documentary Citizenfour; here she's played by the excellent Melissa Leo), journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Guardian editor Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). The film then jumps back and forth through Snowden's life, focusing on his initial induction into the CIA via mentor Corbin O'Brian (an ominously pitch-perfect Rhys Ifans) and his budding disquiet as he discovers the sheer magnitude of his employer's overreach over its own citizens. That, in turn, impacts his romance with his photographer girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), which leads to his moral and ethical decision to surreptitiously — in a wonderfully choreographed, edge-of-your-seat sequence — take the downloads and run.
If you've been following the Snowden story since it broke, then chances are you already know much of the narrative that Stone spins. It's in the way he and his rock-solid cast spin it, thrillingly, that makes Snowden the top-notch nail-biter that it is. Love him or hate him — Stone or Snowden — both of these American icons make for dramatically breathtaking cinema. ♦