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Review: 'Snowden' is Oliver Stone's return to relevance

Oliver Stone hasn't sunk his cinematic teeth into an American outrage since Nixon, so the saga of Edward Snowden offers a return to patriotic dissent form.

Unlike Stone's previous politically charged projects, Snowden isn't rooted in history, or attempting to change its perception. The subjects of government overreach in surveillance, of Snowden exposing that process, even the very definition of patriotism are still being weighed.

Somehow, the topicality of Snowden brings out Stone's moderate side, at least in cinematic terms. This movie isn't as theoretically conspiratorial as JFK, not abrasively operatic like Platoon, and never approaches Natural Born Killers' feverish lack of precision. Stone has important things to say, keeping his movie intentionally sane, so perhaps more people will listen.

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Stone has a compelling mouthpiece in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, despite a distracting vocal effort to match Edward Snowden's lower register. Gordon-Levitt has a charismatically ordinary persona that translates well to Stone's vision of the whistle blower as hero, rather than traitor. While other characters define Snowden as either, Gordon-Levitt's portrayal remains an affable enigma.

Stone fragmentally covers a decade from Snowden's 2004 medical discharge from U.S. Army special forces training, through his rise in intelligence circles, to 2013 when he met journalists in a Hong Kong hotel to pass thousands of classified documents relating to surveillance concerns.

Melissa Leo plays documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, filming Citizenfour about Snowden, that would later win an Academy Award. Zachary Quinto is Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for The Guardian who, along with Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) authored a series of articles based on Snowden's leaked information. The movie's framework mostly limits their performances to concerned listening and urgent pleas to publish, while flashbacks tell the story.

Much more effective is Rhys Ifans as Snowden's CIA mentor Corbin O'Brian, whose Mephistophelian views on individual privacy vs. national security inadvertently plant seeds of defiance. Ifans brings to mind another memorable Stone character, Donald Sutherland's nameless source in JFK, for chilled clarity in a complex scenario.

Stone's World Trade Center star Nicolas Cage adds a warm dash of oddness as a CIA supervisor swept under the carpet, who recognizes his young self in Snowden. As the protege climbs intelligence ranks, Snowden gets schooled in unethical security measures by a sly agent (Timothy Olyphant) willing to ruin lives for information, and a true believer supervisor (Scott Eastwood).

The screenplay builds a gripping case against the government's post-9/11 security measures, leaning on Snowden's escalating awareness. There's a personal stake for Snowden, choosing between in-the-dark girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley, very good) and an addiction of sorts to cyber-sleuthing. Those scenes add a necessary human element, a paranoia to which even Snowden's detractors might relate.

Outside that intimate relationship, Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald veer too close, too often to canonizing Snowden for his actions, using unsubtle dialogue and musical cues, nudging viewers toward agreement. Snowden operates much cleaner when it focuses upon the omnipotent security forces at work; a CGI simulation of cyber connectivity, and examples of the CIA exploiting it, "casting a dragnet over the whole world."

Even with its flaws, Snowden is Stone's return to relevance, in subject and execution. Strangely, as our political climate boils over, Stone turns his rhetoric down to simmer, believing the perils of unrestrained surveillance are too obvious to ignore. He's convinced that Edward Snowden is a patriot, presenting a solid argument with this movie.

Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.