CIA employee Edward Snowden leaks thousands of classified documents to the press.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone's espionage thriller, which finds the rabble-rousing director of yore in an unusually muted mood.

The buzz on Snowden, Oliver Stone’s biopic about the young security contractor responsible for the worst leak of government secrets in US history, is that it is further proof that the director has lost his mojo.

Where once Stone could be relied upon to go straight over the top – in every way imaginable – there is instead, so goes the argument, an unwelcome restraint.

Where there was once a fever dream of wrongs, met with righteous rage, there is now only a sense of loss, a force exhausted from a battle too big to fight alone.

Or to put it another way: Stone seems cautioned. From the JFK and Nixon experience he learned the cost of talking crazy – both as filmmaker and personally.

Which may be why the energy of this film seems directed toward loss and reflection. The ludicrous excitement of Wall Street and Platoon came out of its young hero getting his hands dirty and loving it. Here, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon­Levitt) lives for tech, but learns to hate his life.

Which is to say that Snowden is both better and worse than its rep in the blogosphere. For starters, the old Stone is still alive in this story about how technology makes democracy unsafe for its citizens – there’s an unmistakeable sense of anger and fear.

On the downside – amongst other things – is that Snowden is a film of episodes and moments searching for a highpoint. Part of the problem is a central character that remains tantalisingly out of reach. Like many a Stone hero, Snowden is an idealist wounded by experience, but unlike most of them he’s entitled by virtue of his skills to a special kind of power.

Part of the movie’s squeamishness about betrayal and treason is evident in the fact that the lure of the secret world for its denizens remains off the map; instead, Stone wants to leave us aghast at the size, scope, and scale of the ‘spy machine’ and remind us (as if we need the help) that Big Brother is watching 24/7.

The screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald is based on two different books: by Anatoly Kucherena and Luke Harding. One assumes it involved the co-operation of Snowden; he appears as himself in the last scene of the film.

The action moves back and forth through time. The centerpiece is the siege-like atmosphere in a Hong Kong hotel. This is 2013. Ed is handing over encrypted NSA data to journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). This is witnessed on camera by filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). In real life Poitras won an Oscar for best documentary for her film of this event, Citizenfour. If you’ve seen that film Snowden may seem a dim echo. It’s not nearly as scary. Snowden attempts to journey inward into the messy question of its main character’s motivations. Alas, it arrives instead at that familiar stop of so many films that trade in paranoia: who is watching the watchers?

Ed tries to explain how a patriotic geek with a big brain and a body too fragile for combat became a traitor (it must be said that, though technically correct, this is not a term he is happy to ascribe to himself or his actions.) He joins the CIA, but it is not a good fit. There are too many guys like Timothy Olyphant’s spy who enjoy the lies that come with the job.

Even a friendly face like Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer) adds to the friction. He’s a tech who lives with secrets the way a sports fan avidly collates stats. Breaking into someone’s private life isn’t wrong – it’s just another score. Here, even a drone strike is nothing more than a video game.

Adding to Ed’s dilemma is that he can’t take his problems home. His partner, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), is smart, willing, friendly, and eager to listen, but ultimately confused by the push/pull of Ed’s delicacy and his bullish retreat into suffering. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed about Stone; his female characters exist to comfort their men.

Ed’s distaste – actually horror – with the unique eco-system of the secrecy community is contagious. It’s a downer.

I guess that is as it should be. But spy movies always play dirty: the depressing urgency of their politics is off-set by intrigue, the pleasures of intricate plotting, and the buzzing thrill of action.

But there’s very little of that kind of thing in Snowden. Instead, Stone has filled it with talk; much of it serviceable and drenched with jargon, though occasionally you get a line like: “Americans don’t want freedom. They want security. It’s a bargain they are willing to make.” The conceit of the film is that it is out to penetrate the bullshit in such rationalisations. (I wonder where this question would have led Snowden had it been a newspaper story rather than an insider’s espionage saga?)

Perhaps Stone thought it too trivialising to hype the story with flash and dazzle. Still, there are a few set pieces of suspense and occasionally Stone will amp up the visual rhetoric.

In one bit, the reach of digital tech is transformed into an image of billions of lines wrapping a virtual globe into one big net. This pattern then seamlessly morphs into the actual iris lines of Snowden’s left eye. Stone isn’t known for his sense of humour (and sadly Snowden is witless) but if I didn’t know better it’s a moment that could be read as a piss-take of those utopian ads favoured by certain famous tech brands… except here, connecting means violation.

That theme saturates the movie and dominates the style. Stone’s camera frequently assumes the ‘surveillance position’ – a high, wide angle that exaggerates space and dwarfs humanity. Even Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography has a hard antiseptic gleam where shadows find it difficult to hide.

All the performances are fine – Rhys Ifans is especially good as Ed’s spooky mentor – and the pace is a solid strut. But Snowden feels like Stone is driving with the handbrake on. For me, its best moments are those where Stone surrenders to his baroque instincts. That’s something I never thought I would hope for.

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