“Snowden” Movie Review


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     To say making a film like “Snowden” is right up in director Oliver Stone’s wheelhouse would be an understatement.  The conspiracy theorist himself has always tackled controversial subjects and larger than life figures in our history with a flair for storytelling that comes across both with the performances of his actors, as well as his unique visual style.  Stone, who is responsible for two films which I consider to be within a group of the very best all time (“Wall Street” 1987, “JFK” 1991), runs the biographical story of CIA/NSA analyst turned whistle blower, Edward Snowden, through the very same template he has used many times before, making it incredibly simple to identify the film as the director’s work.  The result never fails to convey a high level of quality filmmaking, but at times you feel as though the material might have been stretched a little further than it needed to be since the story outside of Snowden’s outing of classified CIA/NSA surveillance programs proves to be less interesting.

     Ironically, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has once again been recruited to play a real life character whose story was previously the subject of a documentary, with his portrayal of Philippe Petit in 2015’s “The Walk” (“Man on Wire” 2008 was the documentary.) and now having the opportunity to fill in the blanks left by the Academy Award winning documentary “Citizenfour” (2014), which chronicled the moments where Edward Snowden revealed his knowledge for the first time to Glenn Greenwald of the UK newspaper The Guardian.  If you’re unaware of exactly what and who Snowden blew the proverbial whistle on, I’d highly recommend taking a look at “Citizenfour”, perhaps even before you make the trek to the theater to see “Snowden”.  Fact is, both are two completely different things and I’m happy both were made.

     Stone has assembled an outstanding cast for the film, which begins with Snowden arriving in the Hong Kong hotel room where he would first meet documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and reporter Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) to begin officially telling his story.  What is the story?  Well that’s what “Snowden” sets out to tell through a series of flashbacks which take us to Snowden’s early days in the U.S. Army and his eventual entrance into the CIA.  Snowden is recruited by a senior training officer named Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) who immediately sees potential in the would be spy when he completes a complicated computer coding test designed to take five to eight hours in only 38 minutes.  It’s not long before we follow Snowden to his first assignment in Geneva where he is put directly on the front line of the United States’ war against cyber terrorism.

     Along the way, Snowden meets the woman who would become his long time girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), through an online dating site called Geek-Mate, since they both apparently know their way around an IP address.  Lindsay is along for the ride, but Snowden finds himself having a change of heart as he gets deeper into the world of espionage.  Early scenes with the two of them indicate Snowden is a staunch conservative and patriot who does not question the government or their motives.  Lindsay on the other hand is excited about a certain Senator Obama and the upcoming election, as she listens to Snowden quip the first time she kisses him, “You taste like liberal.”  Considering the time spent together and the conversations that are bound to take place, Stone curiously doesn’t spend a lot of time making Woodley’s role a little meatier by showing her direct influence on Snowden’s line of thinking.  I have to figure he doesn’t react the way he does to what he finds out about the NSA’s surveillance programs if not for Lindsay’s thoughts on the political powers that be.

     Stone, about midway through, lays out the gravity of Snowden’s discoveries in a visual and easy to understand way, which something “Citizenfour” struggled at.  Whereas “Citizenfour” tried to play like a thriller happening in real time, essentially, it was a lot of Snowden sitting on a hotel room bed telling his story and acting extremely paranoid.  Stone makes the entire experience much more cinematic and puts a substantial amount of weight into what shaped Snowden as a person and how he arrived to the conclusion that he needed to contact the media and spill some of the country’s darkest secrets.  In effect, our intelligence agencies were able to, without a warrant, track the online and cellular presence of anyone in the United States (And in some cases the entire world.), meaning they could look in on Facebook posts, emails, locations, and in maybe the most harrowing of revelations, activate the camera on your lap top or computer monitor whether you have the device on or not.  All of this was being done with the cover of anti-terrorist investigations, but the reality is anyone in the country could have had their rights violated for a myriad of other reasons having nothing to do with terror plots.

     It’s weighty stuff for sure, but again, the drama only stretches so far.  Gordon-Levitt’s performance, which is spot on, never really reaches the dramatic heights you’d like to see because the script written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald never gives him the opportunity to do so.  Perhaps there’s little suspense because you already know the outcome, but that certainly wasn’t a problem for Clint Eastwood and his latest film “Sully” which successfully engaged the audience with a recent true story, albeit with a substantially less running time.  Stone uses all of his usual tricks, including views from surveillance cameras, changing film stock, and famous actors in cameo roles in order to amp up the visual splendor and for the most part it works.  I guess I was just expecting him to push the more controversial side of the Snowden story rather than going strictly by the numbers.  GRADE: B