Set aside your visions of histrionic, paranoid fireworks. Oliver Stone's whistleblower biopic Snowden finds the director in an unusually somber and controlled mood, perhaps because of the introverted, awkward nature of Edward Snowden himself. The former CIA employee and National Security Agency contractor, who in 2013 exposed the U.S. government's global surveillance program, is played here by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a quiet, cerebral nerd. And in Snowden, the hyper-stylization of Stone's earlier films is mostly missing. The film goes back and forth in time, but it's the steady, predictable jumping of a mainstream historical drama, not the feverish hopscotching of JFK or Nixon. Stone seems genuinely interested in the slow and steady process by which Edward Snowden came to distrust the government, and he has made a slow and steady movie to go with it.
Stone opens with Snowden's first meeting with documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in a Hong Kong hotel, then flashes back across the young man's life to show how he got to this point: His attempt to join the Special Forces; his introduction to the CIA; his meeting future-wife Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley); his discovery of the nefarious uses of surveillance technology. There is, as always in Hollywood's version of history, a lot of simplification and explanation, but Stone makes the broad strokes clear and, occasionally, visually arresting. In one passage, as Snowden describes our hyper-connected world, the screen bursts with beams of light shooting out from one person to another, all eventually connecting to form a glowing, ominous globe. Leave it to Oliver Stone to depict social media as a bad trip.