It takes about an hour for Oliver Stone's biopic of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden to completely run out of steam. The reason? Snowden appears to have done only one interesting thing in his life, which was revealing the scale of the United States' surveillance program to the public. This was no small achievement, to be sure. It had a huge impact on our society and made Snowden an enemy of the most powerful state on earth. But there is already a great documentary about the fallout of that act (Citizenfour), and there will surely be others. Meanwhile, Snowden focuses on his life before the world-historical event, which was pretty mundane.
Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) failed as a soldier, never graduated from high school, and was a self-taught computer programmer. He did not drink, or smoke, or pursue spy games while working for the CIA. As for his romantic relationship with Lindsay Mills (played by Shailene Woodley), which takes up a good amount of the movie's 134 minutes, it had the usual ups and downs of a standard heterosexual affair. The two met on the internet, got to know each other over time, eventually fell in love, broke up, got back together, moved to Hawaii, and were heading toward a mediocre marriage when Snowden decided to do something truly incredible.
Because there is only one dazzling, glamorous, spy-exciting moment (downloading the information at a secret military base in Hawaii and sharing its contents with reporters in a Hong Kong hotel room) in Snowden's mostly uneventful life, Stone relies on too many fictional devices and basic thriller tropes to keep this one moment in the air. As you will not find a single person on earth who is not impressed by a man or woman who can juggle many balls with one hand, you will not find a person on this same planet who is not soon bored by a man or woman who can continuously toss one ball with two hands.
But let's think about it for a moment. Why was Snowden's leak a global event? Why does it even matter that the NSA is reading our e-mails or texts or whatever? Most of us really have nothing to hide. Most of us are no more interesting than the next person. Most of us begin and end with how we present ourselves on social media. Indeed, Mills says exactly this to Snowden in the movie: She's not worried about the NSA entering her computer and looking at her files because all they will find is an average person.
Snowden's response to this? He knows that Mills is still checking out other men on dating sites. If he knows this, imagine what the NSA knows about her. Instead of being alarmed by this possibility, Mills calmly and even playfully assures her boyfriend that she is not fucking other men and is fully committed to their relationship. He is her one and only. And so a scene that's supposed to provide some tension to the plot turns out to be just another day in the life of a conventional relationship.
So what's the big deal? Why should we freak out about a mass surveillance program that is to the NSA what junk mail is to us? The best thing in this movie, Nicolas Cage (playing Hank Forrester, an instructor at a CIA school), provides the answer: The surveillance technology, Forrester explains, is not about spotting and stopping Islamic terrorists, nor is it really about monitoring and catching shady Americans. It's really about private contractors selling very expensive shit (global surveillance programs with cool names like PRISM and DISHFIRE) to government agencies with deep public pockets. Big government is big business. The fact that your name and internet habits can be revealed by a program does not improve national security—but it does sweeten a sales pitch. Now that's real talk.
I wish they'd make a movie about that instead of the tedious reality of Snowden's boring-ass life.