Film Reviews


By • Nov 23rd, 2016 •

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One thing may be anticipated with an Oliver Stone movie–it will probably tackle a subject unlike anything else on view–most often a piece of recent history. The much-anticipated film SNOWDEN fits right into this bailiwick.

Anyone not living in a cave must know the basic narrative: Edward Snowden, after years of working for the intelligence community, ran off with a vast trove of classified information, handed it over to the British newspaper The Guardian for dissemination, and went on the lam. There already is the excellent documentary CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras’ 2014 film of the week-long rendezvous when Snowden secretly met with her and journalist Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong in 2013. Meanwhile, Oliver Stone was working on his own fact-based movie, co-written with Kieran Fitzgerald.

Stone sensibly begins with Snowden’s teenage years, when he enlists in the army. However, Snowden’s hopes are abruptly dashed when he is found to have broken both legs in the course of training. Still seeking to serve his country, with a military background in his family, he gravitates to the CIA. With his computer expertise, his intelligence career takes off promisingly, especially when a senior operative takes Snowden under his wing.

But as Snowden delves into different niches in different cities, he becomes progressively more disconcerted to see the intrusiveness and the callousness of this world, including blackmail, drone killings of accidental bystanders, infiltration of electronic communication networks both home and abroad, senior intelligence officers lying to Congress. He’s particularly perturbed by the secret surveillance, including the use of a program he designed, later being perverted into an intrusive use he never intended. Finding that the surveillance is not, as claimed, just a defense against terrorism, but used primarily to angle for social and economic dominance, he comes to feel that the only honorable and patriotic move is to expose the machinations. He’s already learned how past whistle-blowers were marginalized and discredited, so Snowden concludes his best option is to flee, and to pass on the information in a way that will finally make international headlines to alert the public. He carefully leaves a trail behind him at the NSA so that none of his colleagues will be implicated, and carefully chooses which journalists to contact – ones he considers fearless and independent.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is styled enough like Snowden to be convincing, and he conveys Snowden’s appeal, although oddly, the real Snowden, a self-described nerd, is more magnetic than the movie star. Overall, however, there is little detail to most of the characters. Shailene Woodley’s perkiness and petulance as Snowden’s girlfriend give no hint of why the relationship lasted so long, and it’s difficult to credit the pairing with someone of such high seriousness. Zachary Quinto’s convincingly intense Greenwald, Melissa Leo’s rather motherly Poitras, Nicholas Cage’s resignedly sidelined CIA computer expert (a composite of disillusioned employees), Ben Schnetzer’s energized geek, and Rhys Ifans’ enjoyably sinister spymaster (a far cry from his 1990s role as Hugh Grant’s goofy roommate) are left rather one-sided.

The quiet loner against the entrenched system has been a staple of movies forever. Snowden’s story fits neatly in with the classic cinema tradition of the steadfast hero who discovers something nefarious and denounces it, such as Robert Redford in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. However, audiences are more accustomed to hearing grand climactic rhetoric, such as Jimmy Stewart fervently denouncing congressional corruption. Here, it’s not so blatant. Stone, faithful to the reality of Snowden’s low-key style, tries instead to articulate the whistle blower’s internal struggle.

Oliver Stone is burdened here, as with so many complex fact-based movies, by the need to cram in a slew of information (he includes, for instance, an explanation of the FISA court and a nod of thanks to previous persecuted whistle-blowers, notably Thomas Drake)–always difficult to do without weighing down the narrative. Stone clearly is hoping to persuade wary viewers to go beyond the kneejerk reaction of “traitor.” His choices are intelligent and purposeful, to explain Snowden’s background, also conveying a bit of the seductive glamour of the life, living in Geneva, Tokyo, and Hawaii, and being privy to the ultimate insider world. And of course he also stresses the unscrupulous breadth of the surveillance. Stone may be the only major director with the audacity to portray a solid-citizen intelligence employee drawing a parallel between the NSA spying and Nuremberg war crimes.

It’s not surprising that Stone would side with Snowden. The surprising feature is that Stone chose to highlight the romance, rather than conceiving this more narrowly as a thriller. His emphasis on the romance, casting the winsome Woodley as his girlfriend, is intended to humanize Snowden, round out the public view of him. (In real life, Snowden himself is good-naturedly resigned to this depiction of himself as “the world’s worst boyfriend.”)

The problem is that the romance trivializes the larger story, undercutting it rather than energizing it. The story could successfully highlight Snowden’s internal ethical struggle, or the meticulous execution of his heist, or even the international news frenzy–but not the complaints of a girlfriend who feels neglected. It’s a worthy effort, and it’s a viable approach to a complex story, but in this case it undermines the momentum and importance of the subject. This lacks the brilliance of, for instance, Oliver Stone’s JFK, which was a dazzling tour-de-force, interweaving the multiple stories of the main narrative, factual and speculative, and juggling an enormous yet distinctive cast. Nevertheless, Snowden does a good job of clarifying a complex situation and both the factual and internal sides of a personal journey. It’s a daunting task to pull it all together, and although Stone falls short of the success he would have hoped for, he deserves credit for a valiant effort.

Stone succeeds magnificently in one respect: He has reached out to the millions of people who never watch documentaries, who aren’t deep readers of news, to make a case for Snowden’s courage, and to depict current history as an exciting subject. And Stone persevered despite being rebuffed by the major studios, likely enjoying his own nerviness, as well as the cloak-and-dagger protocols, avoiding going online, with the secretive production itself using safeguards against surveillance.

Audiences often flock to see movies where the director is audaciously featuring violence; it’s a pity more people don’t flock to movies where the director is audaciously featuring controversial political issues. At least it may be a pleasant change for Stone that this time the simmering paranoia is justified.

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