It would be easy to preemptively label 2016 as The Year of the Bad Biopic, but that would shortchange an entire 21st century already filled with bad biopics. Still, we’re off to a roaring start in this calendar year, with Elvis & Nixon, Miles Ahead, The Man Who Knew Infinity, I Saw the Light and Papa Hemingway in Cuba sinking to the bottom of a deep pile of bad 2016 biopics, with undoubtedly more to come. Just think: At this time last year, the bad biopics Trumbo and Joy were only white-hot, needle-sharp gleams in the eye of award season.
Interestingly, most of the 2016 films listed above were not told from the perspective of their ostensible protagonists, but rather from the point-of-view of a glomming sycophant. That makes it easier for the filmmakers to bypass both copyright infringement and general standards of good taste. In that respect, Oliver Stone’s Snowden distinguishes itself from the horde, since the entire narrative is filtered through the blandly enigmatic but fiercely intelligent perspective of hacker/whistleblower/traitor Edward Snowden.
In every other respect, though, the predictably constructed and overly strident Snowden is a paint-by-numbers book report of a message movie, just another bad 2016 biopic for the pile. Stone, who co-wrote the film along with The Homesman screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald, has had a lot of success in his career twisting and perverting the biopic form for his firebrand objectives. But if you had any hope that the hot-button recentness of the subject matter would rouse Stone out of a two-decade stupor, forget it—Snowden is one of Stone’s most numbingly prosaic films.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Snowden, flashing back through his life story while killing time in a Hong Kong hotel room alongside Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). The “present-day” scenes in Hong Kong re-create moments directly from Poitras’ excellent 2014 documentary Citizenfour, and the flashbacks fill in the patriotic Snowden’s creeping moral disconnect with the American government. Both narrative strands play like dewy Edward Snowden fan fiction.
Shailene Woodley co-stars in the woefully underdeveloped role of Snowden’s longtime partner Lindsay Mills, Rhys Ifans plays an overbearing boss, Nicolas Cage cameos as a sympathetic mentor and almost every role is cast with a recognizable face, but all of the characters are just one-note sounding boards for Snowden. The film often feels more like a simpering advocacy documentary than a dramatic film, with Gordon-Levitt and Woodley coming off like beautiful and doe-eyed re-enactors.
Stone hasn’t made a good film in two decades, and it’s probably not a coincidence that his cold streak started when he lost hall-of-fame cinematographer Robert Richardson to Scorsese and Tarantino. It seems as though only Richardson could bring form and clarity to the illegibility of Stone’s consciousness. Other than Stone’s nakedly pro-Snowden bent (the film culminates in a hero shot that should irritate literally everyone), there’s nothing particularly necessary or notable about Snowden.
Citizenfour and books exist, so go ahead and skip this silliness.