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Movie Review: Oliver Stone's 'Snowden'


While the real life Edward Snowden remains exiled in Moscow and human rights advocates seek a presidential pardon for him, Oliver Stone has produced a film that makes a spirited defense of the NSA whistleblower simply called "Snowden." The movie is out today. And MORNING EDITION and LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan joined us to talk about it. Hey, Kenny.


GREENE: So Oliver Stone - never known for much subtlety. He has to have a message that he's trying to get out in this movie.

TURAN: Well, you know, for Oliver Stone, this is a mild film by his standards.

GREENE: Uh-huh.

TURAN: This is kind of unashamed mythologizing of Edward Snowden into kind of a reluctant hero who takes a journey to the truth. If you're expecting kind of the wild and crazy Oliver Stone of "JFK" or even "Natural Born Killers," that's not here. This is more like - really, more like a "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" about a young idealist taking on the system.

GREENE: Which - some people see Edward Snowden as not others, we should say. And it's also not the first time that Snowden has been portrayed in a movie. I mean, there was an acclaimed documentary about him, "Citizenfour," that came out last year. Does this movie take a different take?

TURAN: Well, to me, my memory of "Citizenfour" is that Snowden was kind of a cipher in that film. I wasn't quite sure what kind of a person he was. And here he's given a very defined character arc. He starts as a conservative idealist, really - my country right or wrong kind of guy.

And then he ends up, as you say, doing things that have caused conservatives to call him a traitor - to break the law by - expose the fact that the National Security Agency was engaged in mass surveillance. So you have him, really, as a very kind of classic Hollywood hero.

GREENE: Kenny, when Hollywood takes on a story that is very much still in the news, does it work? Do things feel different in some way?

TURAN: It's interesting. You know, what fascinates me about this film is the way they've taken this idea that Edward Snowden is a hero and made it fit very clearly into Hollywood norms. I mean, for one thing, they have his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley.

She's shown to be a key figure in his evolution from conservative to radical. And here they are getting to know each other at a Washington demonstration.


SHAILENE WOODLEY: (As Lindsay Mills) Too much independent spirit for you?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (As Edward Snowden) No, I just don't really like bashing my country.

WOODLEY: (As Lindsay Mills) It's my country, too. And right now, it has blood on its hands.

TURAN: That was Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden. And the other thing - you know, it's fascinating. They want to make the point that the NSA has a capability to spy on you anywhere any time. And so he doesn't show Edward and Lindsay having breakfast together. In an intimate moment, Oliver Stone shows them in bed together. It's a chance for him to work in some tasteful nudity.

GREENE: (Laughter).

TURAN: So the whole - you know, it's fascinating to see how Hollywood meets radical politics. It's kind of intriguing.

GREENE: So did you like the movie?

TURAN: You know, I really liked the acting. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who's a terrific actor, really brings a kind of gravitas and interest to Snowden that maybe he doesn't even have in real life, judging by the documentary. And, you know, I was especially taken by Rhys Ifans, who's a British actor. He was so funny in "Notting Hill," co-starring with Hugh Grant.

GREENE: Oh, and Julia Roberts, too, right?

TURAN: Yes, Julia Roberts, too. And here, he plays, totally, a different kind of character. He's very sinister. He kind of represents the dark side of American intelligence, trying to make Edward Snowden do all kinds of devious things. And it's wonderful to see him doing something completely different and being so effective at it.

GREENE: All right - talking about the new movie "Snowden" with Kenneth Turan, who reviews movies for the Los Angeles Times and for us at MORNING EDITION. Kenny, thanks.

TURAN: Thank you, David. Always a pleasure.

GREENE: Always love hearing from Kenny because, you know, it's Friday. It's time to hear about new movies. It's time for the weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.