‘Snowden’ is a quiet, calmer breed of thriller

Courtesy of Endgame Entertainment Before its wide release in theaters, “Snowden” had a showing at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con.
Courtesy of Endgame Entertainment Before its wide release in theaters, “Snowden” had a showing at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con.
Courtesy of Endgame Entertainment
Before its wide release in theaters, “Snowden” had a showing at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con.

By Nicole Prieto | Staff Writer

Directed by Oliver Stone and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Snowden” is a subdued but well-crafted dramatization of one of the most notorious government leaks in recent years.

After Edward Snowden’s attempt at joining the Special Forces fails due to his shin splints, he pursues other means to serve his country. His experience and ingenuity lead him into the clandestine world of top security clearance with the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency. He becomes a mentee to CIA instructor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) and soon finds himself contending with national security interests while trying to lead a normal life without looking over his shoulder.

As trailers tend to be, the one for “Snowden” is pretty deceptive. Tense music, panicked voices, a video feed of a blown up car and a cheeky glimpse at a sex scene are woven together to give the impression that this is your typical action movie. Herein lies the film’s greatest weakness: It is being marketed as a thriller based on true events. And while real life is stranger than fiction, it can also be far more boring. As actual thrillers go, Gordon-Levitt has certainly starred in better. While “Snowden” tops “Looper” any day, it should not expect to live up to any cultural notoriety beyond the infamy attached to its namesake.

This is no “Mission Impossible” or “Jason Bourne.” The film skirts the edges of espionage and covert operation. We witness unauthorized access to remotely activated webcams and personal Facebook messages; dossiers of private citizens’ lives stitched together like rap sheets; blithe banter from top security officials about bypassing the Fourth Amendment; and the exhausting crush of having a secretive profession resulting in health scares that plague Snowden throughout the film.

The movie’s most heart-pounding moment is supposed to be when Snowden copies the notorious encrypted files onto a thumb drive while in his glass-walled office, nervously glancing around as his colleagues go about their business. As the audience, we obviously already know he succeeds.

There are no car chases or dramatic explosions in the immediate vicinity. No one just behind the corner stalking Snowden’s every move. The lack of these things is not a bad thing. It is just odd to reconcile that one of the biggest government data breaches in recent years comes so modestly packaged. The movie leaves the audience with an uncomfortable revelation about how in-depth and pervasive “Big Brother” had been. And that is really it.

That being said, the film has its distinct ups. Snowden’s nervous, whiplash introductory meetings with the journalists who interview him in Hong Kong are some of the most amusing parts of the film. Everyone’s cellphone is stashed in a microwave to block out intrusive signals. Snowden ducks under a blanket while entering passwords on his laptop. Pillows are crammed against the cracks of the hotel door to block out the noise of their frantic conversations. The cast jumps at an unexpected phone call to the room — which ends up coming from housekeeping, because someone accidentally knocked off the “Do Not Disturb” door hanger. It is the humble reality of this biopic that gives it a deserving shout-out among its more action-laden counterparts.

The performances across the board are mostly positive. Rhys Ifans clearly invokes noir sensibilities in his portrayal of O’Brian; though, he tends to overdo intimidating Snowden in key moments of the film, which comes off as cartoonish. Nicolas Cage also makes an appearance as another CIA instructor named Hank Forrester. His acting is fine, but the movie fails to do much with him.

The “Divergent” film series’ Shailene Woodley plays Snowden’s liberal, carefree girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, and her performance is what truly stands out. Woodley’s ignorance to what Snowden knows and does is a seamless conduit between the audience and their shared lives; we understand Snowden’s frustrations, but it is easier to sympathize with Mills’ fears of the unknown.

Gordon-Levitt’s voice change is perhaps the first thing on your mind when you enter the theater. If you have the benefit of not hearing his natural accent juxtaposed to the one he uses in the film, frankly, it is far less jarring than the trailer would lead you to believe. Forgo re-watching “500 Days of Summer” before seeing this movie, and the matter will become background noise pretty quick.

It is easy to see how some could leave the theater pretty disappointed on opening weekend. If you were drawn in expecting 2010’s “Salt” or “Fair Game,” you would have left baffled by a high-stress, feel-good flick about an exiled computer whiz. Certainly, “Snowden” is worth checking out, if only to satisfy your curiosity about what happened in the infamous leak — or at least what the movie purports about it. Just do not expect to be blown away.