Review: In toothless ‘Snowden,’ Oliver Stone softens up

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Even before it was an Oliver Stone movie, the Edward Snowden story was an Oliver Stone movie. If Snowden’s story wasn’t real, Stone would have made it up. So why does Stone’s movie feel so toothless?

Maybe it’s because the real-life story is still very much a work in progress. Snowden continues to live in exile, and the secrets the former NSA contractor exposed are still reverberating. Making a movie about Snowden at this point is like releasing a documentary about the 2016 presidential election in October: We don’t know the ending yet.

There’s still plenty of story to tell with Snowden, but that story, too, has already been told, in 2014’s “Citizenfour.” In that film, Laura Poitras caught up with Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room; so crucial was “Citizenfour” to the Snowden story that Stone frames “Snowden” around recreations of the Academy Award-winning documentary.

So what’s left? Uh, how about a love story? “Snowden” largely focuses on the relationship between Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, deepening his voice and deleting his charm) and his girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), and the difficulties that develop around the secrecy of his job. Sure, the government is reading all your emails and privacy is a myth, but did you know Snowden has a soft spot for the lady in his life?

There’s a great cast here — in the movie’s best-staged scene, Rhys Ifans takes the idea of Big Brother to its logical end — but it’s tough to reconcile “Snowden” with what it could have been. It’s a story tailor-made for Stone, but maybe he’s no longer the man for the job.

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Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity

Running time: 134 minutes