James Bond is a tux-wearing dinosaur. Jason Borne is obsolete. The military-industrial surveillance complex is the future of espionage. In fact, as Oliver Stone’s high-tech, high-IQ spy saga “Snowden” explains, it has already arrived.
The idea of an imperfect, righteous American in quixotic battle with his own government is a theme Stone has handled skillfully in “JFK” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” Who better than American cinema’s master iconoclast to create a fact-based biography of Edward Snowden, the world’s most notorious hacker? Snowden is already known by everyone who reads the news as the National Security Agency contractor who in 2013 exposed the U.S. government’s shadowy reconnaissance of American citizens.
The leading role goes to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, using a calm, deadpan, quietly rational tone and beard stubble that uncannily mirrors Snowden’s own. He makes this cool, levelheaded, noncharismatic guy surprisingly relatable. Joining the Army to support the U.S. government’s post-9/11 anti-terrorism efforts, he moves up to the CIA after his discharge, using his genius-level skills at creating communication systems. “Bombs won’t stop terrorism,” a mentor tells the newcomer to the cyber-spy network. “Only brains.” Exactly what a programming wonk wants to hear.
But Snowden is deeply concerned by the secret surveillance he discovers. Even as James Clapper, director of national intelligence, vows to Congress that the NSA would never do such a thing, the agency is intrusively examining domestic phone calls and e-mails by its own citizens.
Unnerved by that attack against the First Amendment, Snowden finds a supportive spirit in a demoted CIA spook (played quietly and well by Nicolas Cage) who shares his misgivings. He begins looking over his shoulder for agency spyware probing him and his longtime lefty girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley in feisty form). He plans to release more classified documents to the public than anyone since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. And vanish to avoid imprisonment for revealing national security secrets.
It comes as no surprise that this controversy-courting film was created outside of Hollywood. It’s impossible to do serious-minded work there, since major studios’ films must not offend anyone. And few modern Americans are as divisive as Snowden. Half of the country regards him as this era’s Paul Revere, heroically warning that a dangerous war has begun. The others consider him a backstabbing Benedict Arnold. “Snowden” argues that exposing a vast amount of classified information was essential to defending our democratic values, but Stone lets everyone offer their argument in the debate. We meet government officials who view spying as critical to national security. Many CIA and NSA employees question what they’re doing and why. And there’s feedback from the citizen who thinks what’s secretly happening to our privacy doesn’t matter. This is no paranoid conspiracy screed; everyone gets due respect.
The film is clearly meticulously researched, with a good dose of artistic license added to keep the audience entertained. In one scene, the hero is brought to a meeting room where a powerful government official appears on a monitor the size of an entire wall, all the better to give his head the enormous, intimidating Orwellian glare of Big Brother. And Snowden’s repeated fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube does double duty, serving as the usual film symbol of a brainiac and providing an “Ocean’s Eleven”-quality trick for outwitting some security guards.
Stone digs beyond the scandal, turning the events into a compelling and tense ride, half thriller, half think piece, a mixture of dramatic depth and excitement. “Snowden” builds on the solid framework of Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 Snowden documentary “Citizenfour,” and surpasses it. Here, in his most engrossing work since “Any Given Sunday,” Stone delivers a scary game of Whack-A-Mole timed with a doomsday watch.