Portraits of resistance

Oliver Stone’s intriguing meditation on Edward Snowden affair

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rhys Ifans, Melissa Leo and Nicolas Cage. Directed by Oliver Stone. Cinemark 14 and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Oliver Stone’s movie about the Edward Snowden case got a rave review from Peter Hartlaub in the San Francisco Chronicle, but most of the reviews in the national press seem to have been lukewarm, at best. At least some of that caution is always needed with any movie dealing in major controversies that are both current and urgent, but still very far from being resolved.

But while I can’t quite match Hartlaub’s enthusiasm for Stone’s Snowden, it does strike me as a much more intriguing and accomplished movie than you might gather from most of the early reviews and box office reports. Stone’s film has merit as a kind of legal/political brief on Snowden’s behalf, but a special richness of character and observation is what really distinguishes it as a dramatic movie experience.

The title character is of course the central figure in all this, but Snowden isn’t, strictly speaking, a biopic. Rather, it makes its strongest claims on our attention with its gallery of portraits of the friends, colleagues, authority figures, relatives, etc. who are witnesses to Snowden’s brief career with the CIA and the NSA and the extraordinary acts of protest that emerge from it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is smartly understated and thoroughly convincing in the title role, which Stone further enhances with a late, perfectly timed twist of casting. But it’s the scenes involving key figures in Snowden’s professional and (emerging) political life that give the film its greatest vitality and interest.

Stone uses Snowden’s dramatic meeting and interview with journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in a Geneva hotel room as a kind of framing device for Snowden’s own emerging account of what led him to his epochal act of whistleblowing resistance. Those two are particularly memorable as contrasting examples of activism and integrity, as are Snowden’s two contrasting role models and would-be father figures at the CIA, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) and Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), albeit in dramatically different ways.

Snowden’s long-running relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) gives the film an appositely quirky touch of romantic-comedy, but there, too, the picture’s most pressing concerns—personal, political, moral, professional—get a strenuous workout. Woodley’s rendering of a genuinely mercurial character, someone who is both frivolous and dead serious, is one of the film’s most pungent surprises.

Leo’s Poitras is a study in moral courage, both patient and battle-tested. Leo/Poitras and Cage’s gonzo surveillance analyst might be taken as partial stand-ins for Stone himself, but the film’s most remarkable performance comes from Ifans. His haunted-looking CIA honcho is the most complex and mysterious character in the entire film.

For me, Snowden is a film trying to get the measure of tyranny in the 21st century. Its gallery of portraits is making inquiries into what the faces and forms of resistance to that tyranny might look like. Edward Snowden’s swagger-free heroism is the centerpiece in that gallery, but there’s also room for those already mentioned as well as various cameo glimpses—a cheerfully amoral CIA agent (Timothy Olyphant), a techie with flagrant hippie tendencies (Ben Schnetzer), an activist/defense lawyer (Ben Chaplin), a cocky young mid-level data analyst (Scott Eastwood), etc.