Biopics belong to an uneven genre – when presenting audiences with the story of someone’s life, filmmakers must make difficult decisions and are often forced to decide which life moments are important and which are best left on the cutting room floor. Great biographical films, like “Lincoln” or “Amadeus,” transcend such challenges with their focus while the lesser ones fall prey to the challenges the genre presents. Unfortunately, the new film “Snowden” is no “Lincoln,” and must be placed in the latter category.
Directed by Oliver Stone of “JFK” and “Platoon” fame, “Snowden” is Stone’s chronicle of the life of Edward Snowden between the years 2003 to 2013. Stone endeavors to humanize a man who has been called both a hero and a traitor by many. On this front, the film succeeds: Joseph-Gordon Levitt plays Snowden phenomenally well, portraying him as an everyman thrown into an extraordinary situation. Audiences can't help but empathize with him.
Not to be outdone, the rest of the cast turns in excellent performances as well. Shailene Woodley in particular stands out as she steps out of the shadow cast by her sub-par "Divergent" film series and into the role of Lindsay Mills, Edward Snowden’s lover. Her chemistry with Gordon-Levitt is fantastic. There is not a weak link in the whole cast, and they all help out to support Snowden in the time leading up to his exposure of the U.S government’s secretive surveillance programs to the public.
However, such a wonderful cast doesn't fully throw the veil over the film’s shortcomings – namely its superfluous narrative. The film spans a decade of Edward Snowden’s life, from his humble days starting out as a CIA to the decision that changed his life. 10 years is a long time, and the film doesn’t seem to know when it should fast-forward. Stone does not seem to know when to cut the unnecessary bits.
For instance, there is an extended sequence in Japan detailing Snowden’s stint with the NSA, which inorganically and painfully spells out the film’s message of the dangers of mass surveillance and the scenes with Gordon-Levitt and Woodley – while infectiously charming – do not really add anything to the film’s narrative, characters or theme and thus feel unnecessary.
However, what could have been a crippling flaw merely hinders the film, thanks in large part to Stone’s directing. Say what you will about the man, but his behind-the-lens talent is exceptional, and his flair helps make even the most mundane and superfluous of scenes engaging or, at the very least, interesting.
Known for being a politically driven filmmaker, Stone injects his latest with a very strong anti-mass surveillance message. While it might come off as off-putting to some, it will leave most people thinking about their stances on such real-world issue and never comes across as mere propaganda.
While this film will not go down as Stone’s best work, it is nevertheless an enjoyable and thought-provoking film. A fluffy film in hindsight, and certainly not a new classic of the biopic genre, “Snowden” does manage to be an engaging flick worthy of a matinee viewing. If moviegoers get the chance, they should assemble a surveillance group and scout out this film at their local theater.