First, it's the low, flat tone in his voice that does it. Then, it's the anxious but determined glint in his eye. It only takes a few seconds of screen time, a couple of words and a specific expression, for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to make his portrayal of Edward Snowden worth watching. He's the glare, grit, heart and soul of Snowden, from director Oliver Stone. Even as the filmmaker takes a clear-cut stance about the man considered a hero by some and a traitor by others, Gordon-Levitt brings the required conflict and complexity to the role.
Snowden begins in June 2013, in a hotel room in Hong Kong, with one of the most significant and suspenseful events in recent history. The NSA contractor is meeting with filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), providing them with a wealth of documents about the US government's secret surveillance regime. The scene should feel familiar, particularly among viewers who have seen Poitras' Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour. Stone recreates parts of her excellent film as a starting point and a framing device, before setting out to unpack what it was that compelled Snowden to do what he did.
What follows is a dramatic retelling that incorporates much of what you might have read in newspaper headlines, along with snippets of Snowden's life including his rocky relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). He excels during his training, and works his way through various intelligence postings around the world. But with each new task, he grows increasingly concerned about America's intrusive espionage activities, and disillusioned with the country he had always believed in.
It's an intricate story — and a fascinating one. Stone does an adequate job jumping between multiple time frames, weaving three distinct narrative threads and crafting a slick feature in the process. Yet it's the central performance — along with the inherently gripping subject matter — that keeps Snowden tense and thrilling. As the film cycles through relatively routine biopic territory, Gordon-Levitt even manages to make the frequent sight of searching through files and staring out of windows seem compelling.
Unfortunately, while JG-L's portrayal is spot-on, it hurts that the narrative and filmmaking all feels so standard and straightforward. Indeed, it's the feature's conventional nature that never wholly satisfies, even if the story it relates remains engrossing. Snowden is filled with questions, but they're ones that the director quickly offers his own easy, ready-made answers to. On the whole, this is a far less probing effort than Stone's best – think Platoon, Wall Street and JFK. That said, with World Trade Centre, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Savages among his recent output, Snowden is his best film in some time, as well as his most topical.
And if nothing else, it also gifts audiences a rare treat: Nicolas Cage actually acting — rather than chewing the scenery — as one of Snowden's early mentors.