By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Cheer or boo his politics, but give Oliver Stone his cinematic props.
This director has been making Movies That Matter for a long time.
And while Snowden may not have quite the impact or dazzle or passion or urgency of his top-tier work, it comes close as an absorbing, well-crafted, and seemingly important work.
And let’s keep in mind that this is the eleven-time Oscar-nominated, three-time Oscar-winning writer-director who numbers among his works Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, World Trade Center, Any Given Sunday, and W.
Snowden is a docudrama about computer whiz Edward Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the government whistleblower – and eventual fugitive — who, several years ago, leaked the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance techniques to the public in the form of thousands of classified documents that he distributed to the press.
To some he was a hero. To others he was a traitor.
To just about everybody, he was mild-mannered, thoughtful and brilliant.
Some of this ground was covered in the 2014 documentary, Citizenfour, which was admittedly fascinating but certainly less dramatically affecting than Stone’s biopic, which covers the period between 2004 and 2013 and gradually reveals to us what amounts to an American surveillance state.
The screenplay, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, is based on two books — The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena.
The script, densely packed with technical jargon that is presumably authentic and which builds a case for government accountability, cuts back and forth between the on-camera interview that the former CIA officer and NSA contractor sits for and all that led up to it.
Mostly, Stone focuses on Snowden’s CIA career and the effect his principled work had on his romantic relationship with Lindsay Mills, portrayed by Shailene Woodley.
Gordon-Levitt and Woodley are fine individually and together, and Rhys Ifans, Melissa Leo, Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant, and Scott Eastwood provide Stone with a strong supporting ensemble.
But this is Stone’s show and we know it as he argues and demonstrates that our addiction to technology has basically stolen our privacy and made Big Brother even bigger.
Not easy to argue with that, no matter what else you believe.
So we’ll reveal 3 stars out of 4. Snowden, a riveting hacker thriller and a memorable portrait of the American intelligence community and its eavesdropping excess in the high-tech age, is just a Stone’s throw from greatness.