In February 2015, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras deservedly won an Oscar for her riveting picture Citizenfour, which charts the events leading up to Edward Snowden’s decision to go public as the CIA contractor who leaked sensitive material belonging to the National Security Agency (NSA).
In her film, Poitras conducts a series of secret interviews with Snowden holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong in the company of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian’s defence and intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill.
When Snowden’s whereabouts leaks to the media, he moves to Poitras’ room and her film becomes a fascinating portrait of a man on the run from his own government.
This real-life story torn from global news headlines provides the inspiration for Oliver Stone’s character study, which dramatizes events that took place between 2004 and 2013 with occasional brushstrokes of artistic licence.
Curiously, it’s a film lacking in director Stone’s trademark fire and brimstone, and his pedestrian trawl through recent history only sparks to life thanks to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s assured central performance as the beleaguered NSA whistleblower.
Recounting his life in a series of flashbacks, Snowden’s impressive coding skills propel him on the fast track to writing programs that will protect sensitive NSA data. Meanwhile, he begins dating Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who stands by Snowden as he embarks on his momentous course, but is also his voice of conscience.
Snowden is a polished, if suspense-free, political thriller for our surveillance-heavy times that shines a sympathetic light on the lead character. But Stone’s screenplay, co-written by Kieran Fitzgerald, fails to sketch events outside of the Hong Kong hotel room in sufficient detail to give a clear sense of the moral dilemmas and the terrible repercussions.
Gordon-Levitt delivers a measured performance but footage of the real Snowden during the film’s closing moments is a reminder of the superiority of the Citizenfour documentary.
Real-life voyeurism trumps Hollywood dramatisation.