When the subject of a biopic is something that is not only in fairly recent memory, but is also focused on a story as high-profile and well-known as that of Edward Snowden, it will always be the source of much intrigue. Especially when released at this time of year, it might also have the not-so-subtle undertones of something which is trying to garner the attention of the awards ceremonies, and particularly when you consider the fact it is helmed by someone as decorated as director, Oliver Stone.
Stone’s movies have as of late, proved a little divisive, and sadly Snowden is no exception to this. Where it is strongest is in it’s lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has proved to be consistently strong over the years, and as the titular character he delivers a calm, measured and well-rounded performance. His ability to embody and truly become the character is evidenced when the real Snowden makes an appearance and their similarities are noticeable. Gordon-Levitt brings a believable physicality to the role and enough tics to add to the authenticity without it being too over the top.
In the supporting cast, Rhys Ifans is always great to watch, although his character has an annoying tendency to speak entirely in soundbites, which becomes a little grating in places. Nicolas Cage is completely extraneous, and whilst he tones down the Cage craziness substantially, his appearance seems completely out of place and unintentionally laughable. Bless her heart, Shailene Woodley tries her best, but she is given very little to do, her character borders on the annoying, and the relationship between her and Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden is devoid of all the chemistry necessary to make the pairing believable or interesting.
Snowden is not without it’s visual flair and is somewhat fascinating in places, but it is so focused on the character study and technical detail, that it forgets it needs to be an interesting story as well. The over-reliance on biopic tropes, such as the documentary crew opening shots, as the subject matter tells his life story as the film plays out in flashbacks, has been massively overdone and seen countless times before. The narrative is at times incoherent, and it lacks all the drive needed to be make it consistently interesting for it’s weighty 2 hour and 14 minute.
Where Snowden falters the most though is in it’s faux-preachy undertones which leave an incredibly sour taste. It puts Snowden on a heroic pedestal which doesn’t seem entirely justified, and then makes the unforgivable move to switch out Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the real Edward Snowden, just as the film is reaching it’s big, stirring finale. Not only does this serve the purpose of completely removing you from the moment, but it is wholly ineffective, and blurs the lines unnecessarily between documentary and biopic.
Whilst an undeniably excellent performance from Gordon-Levitt, Snowden falls apart in all other aspects, resulting in a tonally confused, unnecessarily over-dramatic, and surprisingly cliched biopic. It had all the potential to be great, but where it deviated from the fascinating story and spent too much time trying to push an agenda, is where it all fell apart.