TIFF Review: ‘Snowden’ is Remarkably Restrained

Displaying remarkable restraint when he is known as a director more often than not willing to bash audiences over the head with his message, ‘Snowden’ marks his finest film since the remarkable and under appreciated Nixon (1995). As someone who admired the courage of his Alexander (2004) epic even if the film did not work, I have always admired Stone as a filmmaker and for making the films he chooses to make. He had a great string from 1986 through 1995, a period in which he won the Academy Award for Best Director twice and the Directors Guild of America twice, along with a third nomination for Best Director for JFK (1991). He was deserving of nominations for both Natural Born Killers (1994) and Nixon (1995) but the Academy must have felt he had enough and turned away from him.  The failure of Alexander (2004) rocked him and despite several cuts on DVD and Blu Ray the film has never founds its audience. I confess to it being a guilty pleasure, a film undone by casting though Colin Farrell has some truly great moments, that swoon when he conquered Persia. Stone trued to get a film made of Evita for years before giving up and at one time had been prepared to make a film about Martin Luther King with Eddie Murphy that fell by the wayside.

With ‘Snowden’, it is great to see him back in form, and still possessed of that touch of paranoia that made his early work so interesting.

Ed Snowden is a CIA whiz kid, brilliant, shy, complicated, a fast rising star within the intelligence agency. A true patriot he is a good man, who believes in his country, who believes they do right and who believes that the agency he works for should do good, nothing but good. The further into the agency he goes he begins to uncover the fact that the government is listening to all communications on telephones, cell phones and very likely computers. It comes to him like a slow dawning, but when he realizes it is true and then the government lies about it, he cannot remain part of the agency and must expose them.

And that is what he did. He copied files at an intelligence base in Hawaii and walked out with the file concealed in a Rubik’s Cube and went to the press. He is now a fugitive from the United States living in Russia for as much his safety as a flight from the courts, which would use the espionage charge against him. The final scene of the film has the real Snowden talking about his decision and what it meant to him and the American people, and that single scene displays the brilliant of the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, long an up and comer as a great actor, finally arriving with this powerful performance.

Awkward, not terribly social, but dedicated and loyal and brilliant in a way very few people are, Gordon-Levitt captures every nuance we see in the real Snowden, and the halting manner of speaking. It is a superb performance, one of the years best.

The film for Stone, felt a little muted, as though he was holding back on purpose rather than cutting loose as he has in the past. That is not to say this is not a good film, because it is, just a little cool.

Nicolas Cage has a small part but very little to do except appear brilliant and now hidden away for his actions rooting for the young Snowden, and Shailene Woodley, a gifted and natural actress is the ever supportive girlfriend who can ask no questions and is expected to just be there for him, which she struggles with. Theirs is a complicated relationship and though he pushed her away to protect her, she has since joined him in Russia.

Oscar chances? Maybe, if embraced by the critics, then for sure. Gordon-Levitt has a shot at a nomination but none of winning, and Stone could be nominated for his screenplay but I doubt his direction. As I said, a good film, not the great one we were hoping for.

Rating: 3/5