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The eyes have it - 'Snowden'

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Film fails to capitalize on compelling story, excellent performances

The ability to tackle controversial figures and/or subjects is one of the greatest powers the cinema possesses. Filmmakers can use their art to tell stories that they feel need telling in the manner in which they feel those stories need to be told.

Few popular filmmakers have invited the sort of controversy that Oliver Stone has spent his career cultivating particularly when it comes to bringing real-life stories to the screen. Over the past three decades, he has made films that love them or hate them have shined a different light on historical moments and the men and women central to them.

So it absolutely makes sense that Stone would be the one to bring a big-budget dramatization of Edward Snowden's story to bear. Stone not only directed 'Snowden,' but also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Kieran Fitzgerald (the source material came largely from books by Anatoly Kucherena ('The Time of the Octopus' and Luke Harding ('The Snowden Files')); Stone's body of work would seem to indicate that he was the ideal candidate to make this movie happen.

And yet, in many ways, Stone misses the mark. While there's intrigue a-plenty and a compelling lead performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular Edward Snowden, the director never quite manages to amp the energy up to the level necessary to match reality. There's a lack of urgency through much of the film that largely deflates the high-end tension that you'd anticipate from a story such as this.

For those unfamiliar with the saga of Edward Snowden, he was a government operative who did computer work for agencies such as the CIA and the NSA. After becoming privy to the extent of secret (and largely illegal) surveillance tactics utilized by these agencies, he chose to reveal them to the world in hopes of starting a larger conversation regarding the often-tipped balance between privacy and security.

'Snowden' presents itself as a dramatization of events between 2004 and 2013, starting with Snowden's washing out of Special Forces military training and ending with the publication of his stolen information. In between, we watch as a man with a fierce belief in his government slowly become disillusioned by action after action that he finds to be ethically questionable.

He is stationed around the globe in the course of doing his duties, often with his girlfriend Lindsey (Shailene Woodley, 'Allegiant') by his side. But with every new stop, he becomes more and more concerned by what he sees. From Geneva to Japan to Hawaii, his travels only cause him consternation as his questions mount. Ultimately, he chooses to grab the proof and flee.

That flight leads him to Hong Kong, where he holes up in a hotel room with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo, 'All the Way') and reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto, 'Star Trek Beyond') and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson, 'The Choice'); he enlists their help in disseminating his message and steels himself for the fallout sure to follow his actions.

The film bounces back and forth in time, moving from that hotel room into the past and back again, allowing for the backfilling of Snowden's story as the clock ticks on the bombshell revelations that he has set in motion.

Capturing the essence of a real person particularly one already so expertly portrayed in the excellent documentary 'Citizenfour' is a difficult task. Oliver Stone certainly seemed like the man for the job, and yet, it seems that he took his foot off the gas a little too often. The lagging pace hamstrings the narrative, removing much of the intrigue from what should have been a truly intense story. Frankly, it's enough to make you wish that the Oliver Stone of 20 years ago could have taken a shot at this he'd have done a much better job. It would seem that Stone has lost his fastball.

The same cannot be said of Gordon-Levitt, who continues to prove himself to be one of his generation's most talented and versatile performers. His take on Snowden is subtle and nuanced and utterly fascinating; it isn't a flashy turn, but it is an exceptional one. This role might not earn him much in the way of hardware, but it will absolutely put him in the conversation.

Woodley also shows off her chops, showing that she's capable of far more than starring in big-budget YA dystopian fare. The dynamic between her and Gordon-Levitt is the film's emotional foundation. There's some phenomenal work from the supporting cast as well. Quinto, Wilkinson and especially Leo are all great. Rhys Ifans is surprisingly effective as Snowden's CIA mentor and Timothy Olyphant has some great scenes. And there's a nicely reserved Nicolas Cage sighting as well.

The actions undertaken by Edward Snowden remain divisive (though it's clear on which side Stone comes down) and perhaps rightfully so. But however you feel about what he did, there's no denying that those deeds make him an important figure in 21st century American history.

Ultimately, there's no way of knowing just how true-to-life 'Snowden' is. What we do know is that the movie even with Oliver Stone at the helm never quite manages to truly capture the moment or the man.

[3.5 out of 5]

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