Snowden Review

Posted: September 19, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

snowden-movie-2016-poster.jpgWritten by Daniel Simpson

Like any decade, the 2010s have been defined by a series of contested and controversial trends and events. From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to Brexit; all passionately debated topics of great ethical and social concern. One of the most highly contested topics has been Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks, which revealed the depth and reach of the NSA’s surveillance practices on both foreign parties and American citizens. Such a reveal has re-invigorated public debate regarding mass surveillance, whether it is a justifiable path to security or an unnecessary violation of privacy. And what of Snowden himself? Is he an outlaw who jeopardized American intelligence or a hero who risked his life in order to reveal horrific truths to the world? A new film from Oliver Stone, simply titled Snowden, has arrived to weigh in on the debate. Stone has been in something of a filmmaking rut for a long time but given the highly incentive nature of the subject matter, I had hopes Snowden might act as a comeback for the once great auteur.

The film is framed around the interviews Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gave to journalists Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) depicted in her film Citizenfour. It is to these journalists that Snowden disclosed secret NSA documents and who in turn published this information. From there, the film flashes back to 2004 following Snowden as an aspiring army recruit. When a pair of broken legs end that career, Snowden instead gets a job working on intelligence gathering for the CIA. The film then depicts Snowden’s life as he moves around the intelligence community, continually bearing witness to more invasive mass surveillance measures which will ultimately lead to his leaks. Running parallel to Snowden’s career advancement is his budding romance with a young amateur photographer named Lindsay Ellis (Shailene Woodley).

Perhaps the first question to address is whether or not this tops the other major cinematic depiction of Edward Snowden, Poitras’ aforementioned documentary, Citizenfour. The answer is no. Coming out a few years after the leaks, this doesn’t feel nearly as ground-breaking as Citizenfour did and also lacks that movie’s excitement of seeing history unfold before you in seemingly real-time. Additionally, while the time passed does lessen the impact, not enough time has passed for the film to reveal much of Snowden’s story post-leak. Still, while Snowden may lack the bite of Citizenfour, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a look. While the story being presented here is familiar to those who have already been following it, it still remains a fascinating tale with thought-provoking ideas which are well worth repeated exploration. More importantly, Snowden is a well-crafted film which presents the material at had clearly and effectively. Some may accuse of Stone of simplifying the material at points or for over-explaining things, but I think that is somewhat necessary for a film like this. The fact is there is a lot to unpack here for uninitiated and it also is easy to become lost in the complexity of the technology with which surveillance is conducted. Simplifying things allows Stone to keep focus of the bigger picture while also allowing the story to flow naturally and the character to come through strongly.

What’s more, I do think Snowden provides something Citizenfour didn’t; focus on Edward Snowden as a person. One thing Snowden says repeatedly in Citizenfour is that he is not the story, the NSA’s surveillance practices are. With Snowden however, Stone has made a clear effort to observe the details of his life, what he lost when he leaked information to the press, and how he came to make said decision. The film presents a very clear arc wherein Snowden starts as a conservative young man who believes without hesitation in America’s greatness. However his time working for various government agencies shake that faith deeply and he eventually finds himself disillusioned. The arc is rather similar Ron Kovic’s in Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, another young patriotic American whose confidence in government was shaken by his experiences. This is clearly a personal theme for Stone and indeed his own disillusionment seems to come through in Snowden. Stone openly voted for Barack Obama in both elections and the film makes overt notice of the Obama administration’s failure to reduce or regulate surveillance practices as promised.

Another thing that distinguishes Snowden from Citizenfour is Stone’s willingness to directly comment on the morality of Snowden’s actions. Based on the film, it’s pretty clear Stone falls firmly into the “Edward Snowden is a hero” camp. The very narrative of an idealistic young man growing disillusioned with the system has a certain heroic connotation and the film also depicts the proponents of surveillance with an underlying menace. However where the film really commits to this is in the final ten minutes, which emphasis Snowden as a modern hero so heavily its borderline propaganda. A lot of people will see this as a major flaw, but I do not. This is not a documentary nor is it a history lesson, this is cinema. There’s certainly a place for unbiased and balanced narratives in cinema, but there’s also a place for boldness, for putting one’s foot down and making a clear stand. It feels especially appropriate given how contentious a figure Edward Snowden is.

The whole film is anchored by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s excellent performance in the title role. Early on, I suspected Levitt’s mimicry of Snowden’s naturally deep voice would be distracting, but that isn’t the case. It doesn’t take long to adjust to Levitt’s voice and he does a great job embodying Snowden’s personality. Rhys Ifans also makes for a compelling screen presence as the CIA bigwig who first hires Snowden and comes to loom over his life later on. Ifans definitely leans into the character’s sinister aspects, but it felt appropriate. Shailene Woodley’s energetic and charming Lindsay works as a nice counter-point to Levitt’s more awkward Snowden and watching their relationship grow is a highlight. Another actor who stands out, despite limited screen time, is Zachary Quinto as journalist Glen Greenwald. Quinto does a great job capturing Greenwald’s looks and mannerisms and beyond that just makes a big impact in only a few short moments. The rest of the cast fares pretty well, with the exception of Nicholas Cage and Timothy Olyphant, who were both a little too over the top and just felt silly.

Oliver Stone’s work behind the camera is quite strong. Apart from getting strong performances from his cast, Stone also does a really good job visualizing Snowden. The film makes strong use of digital representations to visualize how the various surveillance technologies work as well as real-life news footage which helps place the story in context. Some of Stone’s tactics here are remarkably simple, such as filming conversations with a wide-lens and from a distance to create the sense of a third party watching, even when there isn’t. Another great creative flourish is a video-call between Snowden and the Rhys Ifans character, with Ifans’ image projected across the entire wall, dwarfing Snowden. There is an Orwellian nature to the image and beyond literally allusions this is simply an effective means of demonstrating the massive power governments’ yield over ordinary individuals. If Stone’s work is lacking anything, it’s that extra stylistic push to really put it over the top. Thinking back to the prime era of Stone’s career, films like JFK and Wall Street had a boundless energy and momentum to them. Hell, even the three and a half hour Nixon really moves. That isn’t to say Snowden is in any way boring, in fact it moves at a fine pace, it just lacks that extra spark which made Stone’s peak so engrossing.

To some extent, Snowden does feel like a bit of an “also-ran” in some key places. The film will never be seen as the definitive cinematic take on the titular character and it will never be held alongside the likes of Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, or JFK as one of Oliver Stone’s great works. However to get lost in the film’s pedigree is to lose sight of the film’s many positive qualities. This is a very well-crafted and thought provoking work which features some strong performances and skillfully brings to life one of the most important and exciting stories of the decade. The film certainly stumbles in a few places, notably in some of the supporting performances, but it remains a compelling work and while the film may fall short of Stone’s masterpieces, it is the best thing he’s made in a long time, probably since 1995’s Nixon.


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