Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Ben Schnetzer, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Nicolas Cage, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Tom Wilkinson, Bhasker Patel, Joely Richardson, Edward Snowden
MPAA Rating: (for language and some sexuality/nudity)
Running Time: 2:14
Release Date: 9/16/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 15, 2016
Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who was instrumental in releasing the agency's widespread information-gathering practices to the public, comes across as an enigma, if only because he presents himself exclusively as a messenger. The message is what matters to him. That approach can be frustrating at times, because the message is so devastating to whatever trust the public has left in its government that we might want to ensure that the messenger is on the level. Snowden, co-writer/director Oliver Stone's biographical account of the eponymous whistleblower/traitor/something-in-between (depending on one's view of the man), seeks to humanize the enigma while offering clarity on the message.
It's mostly successful in both regards, too, although Stone appears to possess the same attitude as his subject. The biographical elements here feel secondary, slightly rushed, and a bit generic. Stone, whose fame and notability as a filmmaker in part has come from his way of turning conspiracy into seemingly legitimate fiction, has a very real and demonstrably confirmed conspiracy on his hands here. There's no way he's going to let it get away from him. If that means the personal story of the man who helped reveal it has to become a secondary concern, so be it.
It should come as little to no surprise that Stone treats Snowden as hero beyond any and all question. That lack of doubt about the man's motives and actions is certain to rub some people the wrong the way. It does, though, turn out to be the correct perspective from which to approach this telling of the story. The man is such a controversial figure that anything other than a celebratory or indicting tone would come across as too wishy-washy.
The movie covers about a decade in Snowden's life. He's played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (with a throaty, baritone voice that, when the real Snowden shows up at the end of the movie, seems like an odd and just downright incorrect affectation), and the movie portrays him as an American patriot who, at the beginning of the story, is about to become a man without a country. The framing narrative takes place in that Hong Kong hotel room, where documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) are about to learn how wide the rabbit hole of U.S. government surveillance is and how far down it goes.
The build-up to this days-long rendezvous in 2013 takes place through a series of flashbacks. There's Edward, the prospective candidate for the Army Special Forces, who trains to the point that the bones of his two broken legs will be turned to powder if he continues. There's the computer expert who takes a job at the CIA because he wants to fight the real war. His boss at the agency Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans) says the battlefield is now everywhere and anyway across the internet. There's the shy nerd who meets Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) through an online dating service, and there's the political conservative who genuinely believes in the fight against terrorism begun by the second Bush administration.
These biographical beats are of the routine sort in Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald's screenplay (based on two books: the non-fiction work The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and the fictional novel Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena). The point is not, for example, how Edward's political leanings turn toward the left—with a strong libertarian streak—on account of Lindsay's influence. Neither is it how he jumps from consulting job to consulting job across different intelligence agencies.
Stone and Fitzgerald's goal is to move beyond the political, the bureaucratic, and even the personal here. At its best, their tale takes on the structure and tone of a paranoid thriller in which the protagonist's paranoia is not only warranted but also a call to action.
Edward knows what the government's intelligence arms are capable of doing because he spends his career creating them. Here, he creates a program with the CIA that could make searches for terrorism suspects more efficient, but when he shows up at a consulting job for the NSA, he discovers that his program is being used to make drone strikes in the Middle East more effective (Nicolas Cage plays Edward's mentor who warns him of such moves, especially if it means the government spends more money on its defense contracts).
The simplicity and directness of this overarching narrative makes this intelligence maze—of which agency possesses which program, how those programs work, and why they're of such questionable legality—all the easier to navigate. In the earlier stages of NSA surveillance, Stone offers a disturbing visual map of how the cellphone calls and emails of single person of interest branch off to this massive tree of millions of people—all of them being looked at because of someone they never met. Timothy Olyphant turns up in one section as a CIA spook who's willing to exploit the information garnered—even if it means inventing a crime or indirectly leading to an innocent person's death.
The primary benefit of this fictionalized account is how concisely stated and cleanly portrayed the information that the real Snowden uncovered comes across. The man at the heart of Snowden, though, remains a cryptic messenger whose personal story is here treated as the means to an end.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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