‘Snowden’ Toronto Review: Oliver Stone Plays It Aesthetically Safe

Toronto 2016: Stone names the right (and left) names in this biopic of the whistle-blower, but his storytelling style lacks punch

Going from “The Walk” to “Snowden,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt is now two-for-two in starring in narrative films about men whose lives have already rated award-winning documentaries. Who will he play next — Sugar Man? Vivian Maier?

And while it’s not necessarily the actor’s fault, both of these films wind up paling next to the non-fiction version: Oliver Stone‘s “Snowden” does fill in some background regarding whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s past and his work in national security prior to his exposure of just how much the U.S. government spies on its own citizens, but this biopic is never as suspenseful or as stirring as Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour.”

For viewers who never saw that movie, and perhaps have only a vague idea of who Snowden is, what he revealed and why he did it, then it’s quite likely that “Snowden” will provide an eye-opening experience, since Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald (“The Homesman”) skillfully guide us through computerese and governmental gobbledygook to get their story told.

That story begins with Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) trying to make Special Forces but getting discharged from the Army instead after injuring his legs. Determined to be of use to his country, Snowden instead applies for the CIA, where his computer skills catch the attention of higher-up Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans, whose Welsh accent occasionally seeps forth), who becomes the young man’s mentor.

Snowden starts dating Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) even though her lefty, anti-war views chafe with his unwillingness to think anything bad about George W. Bush or his military interventions. (Appropriately, the two bond online over a shared love of “Ghost in the Shell,” an anime movie about hackers.)

As Snowden climbs the ranks of the CIA and then the NSA, he’s dismayed to learn that the government is monitoring the e-mails and phone calls of everyone, not just those suspected of terrorism. (Once he learns that the government can turn on your laptop’s camera without you knowing, he starts covering his with a Band-Aid.)

The more he learns, the more he’s horrified, and once it becomes clear that O’Brian has been monitoring Lindsay as a way to keep tabs on Snowden, a whistle-blower is born, taking the film to the events that “Citizenfour” so memorably captured. (Poitras is played here, mostly maternally, by Melissa Leo.)

For a film that’s so politically risky — Stone hasn’t named names and pointed fingers (at both sides of the aisle, incidentally) in a mainstream movie like this for years — it’s surprisingly safe aesthetically. You’d never know the man behind “JFK” or “Natural Born Killers” (or “Talk Radio,” for that matter) was calling the shots on a film with such by-the-numbers editing and cinematography.

Given how familiar much of the audience is with the material being presented, however, that old-school brand of Oliver Stone flash is greatly missed here; sure, he makes people typing on computers more dynamic than, say, Michael Mann did in “Blackhat,” but “Snowden” could have used more visual flair and dramatic tension.

Gordon-Levitt gives, by design, a mostly reactive performance as Snowden, but he’s one of the few characters who’s allowed to have some shading; almost everyone else onscreen is hemmed in by their function of the plot, thus reducing them to one or two personality traits, whether it’s Zachary Quinto‘s barking righteousness as Glenn Greenwald or Timothy Olyphant‘s sleazy CIA operator, sporting the kind of pompadour that ensures you would never buy a used car from this man.

The one performer who turns a supporting role into something resembling a human being is Ben Schnetzer (“Goat,” “Pride”). Playing a character who’s essentially a walking info-dump — Gabriel Sol serves little purpose in the film but to tell Snowden what various surveillance programs are able to do — Schnetzer creates a lived-in hacker geek with engaging charm and a sense of humor, another element this film could have used more of.

“Snowden” will no doubt restart conversations about the morality of its hero’s actions and of domestic spying itself, but it’s also not going to win over any political opponents who unfairly dismiss Oliver Stone as a pedantic scold. As an activist, he’s still armed with powerful medicine, but as a filmmaker, he’s usually better about providing the spoonful of sugar.