Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone

139 minutes, rated M

This might be the most truthful movie Oliver Stone has made. That is not to say that it tells either the whole truth or nothing but the truth, assuming anybody knows what that is. But the mention of truthful and Oliver Stone in the same sentence, given his track record, is in itself a hard news story. 

Edward Snowden’s epic release of secret US intelligence in May 2013 proved that the American government was spying on its own people, despite strong denials. The leaks made him hero or traitor, depending on your politics, but Snowden has changed the landscape of intelligence work in America. That makes him a suitable subject for a movie – and the fact that every Hollywood studio passed on the project before it found a home with the independent distributor Open Road Films (the same company that backed Spotlight) tells us something about the climate of fear that still pertains.

Stone went to Russia nine times during the writing to meet with the exiled Snowden, who received no money for his part in making the film. Snowden insisted on the accuracy of every detail, Stone said in interviews last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. If that’s true, it would be a first for Stone, whose career, though studded with superb movies, has always been vulnerable on his willingness to bend the truth in service of narrative. The cloak-and-dagger general played by Donald Sutherland in JFK was a good example: he never existed.

Rhys Ifans plays a similarly overdone character here, as Corbin O’Brian, who runs a secret CIA training unit outside Washington. That name is probably a wink in the direction of Orwell’s 1984, where the main antagonist was O’Brien.  In Snowden, O’Brian recruits young Edward (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and superintends his career after he shows an unusual talent for computer ops, both black and white. Even after Snowden resigns from the CIA to become a private contractor to the NSA, O’Brian hovers in the background, a sinister overlord surveilling all he sees – including Snowden’s slightly hippy girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

O’Brian functions as a hammy personification of what’s wrong with American intelligence gathering, thus justifying Snowden’s actions in exposing the lies, but a more nuanced kind of villain might have served the story better. The Jason Bourne movies get this right with a series of professional but ruthless CIA antagonists. That’s where Stone wants to locate this story – as a political thriller without the car chases – but he still thinks the bad guys wear black hats.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance, by contrast, is a masterpiece of understatement. His Snowden matches the one seen in Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary from 2014, Citizenfour, which showed how Snowden leaked the documents. That young man was calm under pressure, as he sat in a Hong Kong hotel room with Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill (from The Guardian). He was cautious, well-mannered, quietly determined. Gordon-Levitt gives us all of that and more humour.

The movie begins in the same place, as an extremely skittish Snowden meets Poitras (Melissa Leo), Greenwald (Zachary Qunito) and MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) for the first time. The story needs this excitement, because much of the rest of it is about smart young guys sitting in front of computer screens. Sure, it’s cool to be a geek, but it isn’t necessarily all that dramatic.

Stone takes care of that with clever direction, and by focussing on the relationship between the idealistic, patriotic and politically conservative young man and his free-spirited girlfriend. She’s a left-leaning teacher of pole-dancing and a beacon of openness by comparison. One of the movie’s strengths is the way it shows how secret work makes Snowden paranoid and fearful. The love of a good woman gives him the courage to resist when he sees an enormous abuse of power.

All of Oliver Stone’s movies, to a greater or lesser degree, are about the American government’s betrayal of the people. That’s the legacy of his radicalisation as a soldier in Vietnam. He’s a powerful story-teller, partly because of this anger. He controls that here, which produces an absorbing, rather than galvanising, film. The American right wing will denounce it, but they always do. So far, the film stands as credible.