When depicting dissidents or political troublemakers, Hollywood usually calls on one of two character types. The first is the moral visionary, the Joan of Arc or Martin Luther King Jr., who spends their life in the service of a beautiful future, trying to teach others to see it along with them. The visionaries are heroic because they are not like us, because they are saints. The second type is the everyman: the plainspoken, not-more-than-moderately ambitious fellow who sticks up for what’s right because that’s what anyone with a little common sense and decency would do. The everyman is heroic because he is like us—and does something great anyway. Hollywood has sometimes portrayed actual historical figures as both types. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a saint; John Ford’s is an everyman. Although the real Ed Snowden is an international fugitive defined by his arcane knowledge of some of the world’s most secret technologies, Oliver Stone’s Snowden, as played by Joseph Gordon Levitt in Snowden, turns out to be one of us.
He is like us in the film’s opening at Ft. Benning, where he enters basic training in the hopes of serving in the Army’s Special Forces. That training requires lots of running and wall-climbing, plus being screamed at from the break of dawn until lights-out. You and I wouldn’t make it, and neither did Snowden, who breaks his leg getting out of bed one morning and is quickly discharged, which is a huge disappointment. He joins the CIA, hoping to help his country do something about terrorism, and he is like us when he is flattered that an instructor recognizes him as talented and begins to take an interest in the young man’s career. He is like us when his relationship with Lindsay Mills has ups and downs, when he sometimes gets jealous, and when he has sex with her in the usual positions. Establishing Snowden’s relatability takes up chunks of the film’s running time that could be spent on some of the more exciting parts of Snowden’s life, like how he finagled a flight to Russia while stranded in Hong Kong. That adventure is compressed to within an inch of its life in a montage.
Of course, what happens to the everyman in many Oliver Stone films (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, World Trade Center) is that he gets disillusioned. Experience undermines the myths around which the hero has organized his—and it’s almost always “his”; Stone has directed just one film with a female protagonist—worldview. Cast out of moral infancy, he loses his bearings and strains his personal relationships to the breaking point. Ultimately, he decides to change his life in accordance with what has been learned. Stone has told the story of a man’s painful awakening from ignorance over and over again.
In Snowden, it’s Mills (Shailene Woodley) who first begins to chip away at her boyfriend’s political complacency. Their first-date stroll just happens to take them through an Iraq War protest, which Snowden dismisses as people “lashing out” against the men and women who are trying to keep the country safe. “I’m not lashing out,” Mills, who sympathizes with the protesters, replies. “I’m questioning our government. That’s the principle this country is founded on.” That civics lesson doesn’t transform Snowden’s politics, even if he does admire Lindsay’s feistiness, but he, still new to the CIA, soon encounters the dark side of intelligence gathering in Geneva. Snowden wants to get out from behind a computer screen and onto the front lines of spy craft, and to that end he is asked to befriend a Pakistani businessman, get him drunk in a strip club, and then put him behind the wheel of a car. Snowden balks: Endangering an innocent man’s life for the sake of some tiny intelligence victory is immoral. He doesn’t know the half of it.