Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” has his usual directorial gusto going for it – visually, if not in almost every other way, it’s not boring – but it’s a fawning piece of work. It’s about Edward Snowden and what led him to expose the U.S. government’s secret, warrent-less surveillance of its citizens in 2013 after he served as a computer analyst in the CIA and National Security Agency as a self-described patriot. In unloosing these secrets and exposing covert operations, Snowden still believes he is being a patriot, but Stone is too smitten to offer up any counterarguments. Had Stone done so, he would have strengthened his own argument; the way he’s done it, the entire enterprise seems rigged. The aura of sainthood thickens the atmosphere.
As Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a straightforward performance that is almost semi-documentary in its matter-of-factness. There’s not much dimensionality to him because Stone and his co-screenwriter, Kieran Fitzgerald, haven’t conceived of him as a fully dimensional human being. They make a big deal about his long-term relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), as if this would humanize him for us, but he remains blandly opaque throughout.
Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 Snowden documentary “Citizenfour” is, almost inevitably, a stronger experience. That, too, was a species of political thriller but, unlike Stone’s film, it’s actually thrilling. Grade: C+ (Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.)