October 2023

Snowden (2016)

snowdenDIRECTOR: Oliver Stone

CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo, Nicolas Cage


Given his attraction to controversial, politically-charged fare, it’s no surprise that Oliver Stone would end up being the one to make a film about Edward Snowden, the NSA/CIA analyst-turned-whistleblower who became an internationally wanted fugitive (currently living under temporary residence in Moscow) after leaking thousands of classified files exposing unconstitutional government wiretapping and mass surveillance programs.  Whether Snowden deserves the label “hero” or “traitor” (or to some extent maybe even both) varies widely depending on who you ask, but the content of his leaks, whatever one may feel about his methods or the man himself, should give anyone a moment’s pause.  Perhaps Snowden‘s biggest drawback as a film is that it doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table that can’t already be gleaned from a documentary on the same subject, Citizenfour (ironically the same complaint that can be made of another Joseph Gordon-Levitt vehicle, last year’s The Walk), but it’s still a compelling biopic/docudrama that doesn’t require one to be particularly familiar with the real Edward Snowden to find the film interesting viewing.

When we open in June 2013, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has already gone AWOL, holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo)—the director of documentary Citizenfour—American journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Scottish journalist Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), to whom he is dispensing thousands upon thousands of stolen classified National Security Agency files exposing unconstitutional wiretapping and mass surveillance programs.  With this as our “present day”, we flashback to sketch out what led up to this point, starting in 2004, where Snowden’s brief stint in Marine basic training ends when he breaks his legs in an accident, then switches to the CIA and NSA, where he proves a boy genius and the star pupil of instructor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who takes him under his wing and arranges for him to be given ever-increasing access and responsibilities in clandestine CIA/NSA surveillance and cyber warfare operations.  But along with his success comes mounting misgivings which eventually become too overwhelming to ignore, as Snowden becomes more aware of the extent to which the agencies he works for are exceeding their mandate (among other revelations, he is disturbed to realize they’re collecting more information from American citizens than they are from an “enemy state” like Putin’s Russia).  Meanwhile, the downward spiral he becomes trapped in affects his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).  Ultimately, inevitably, Snowden decides to take matters into his own hands for what he believes is the good of his country and its people, but which may necessitate leaving behind everything he cares about in the process.

First things first, if you view Edward Snowden as a traitor who belongs in prison or in front of a firing squad for his actions, you are unlikely to enjoy Snowden.  Oliver Stone is an unabashedly highly opinionated left-wing filmmaker whose political slant permeates his films (JFK and Nixon are hardly models of political objectivity), and considering that both the director and his leading man Joseph Gordon-Levitt are outspoken Snowden supporters, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Snowden is portrayed sympathetically as a patriot of noble, if arguably misguided intentions, and the narcissism and self-righteousness which his detractors see in him has been, if not completely whitewashed, at least greatly downplayed.  It’s clear that the filmmakers view the man as belonging in the “whistleblower” category more than the “traitor” one.  What might be a little more surprising is Stone’s restraint.  JFK and Nixon were full of offbeat, over-the-top directorial flourishes and outlandish conspiracy theories, but here he mostly plays straight and holds himself in check.  It’s obvious the movie’s view of Snowden is far from impartial, but it stays grounded and follows the facts more-or-less faithfully without freely blurring fact, fiction, and wild speculation with the abandon of the aforementioned political potboilers.  Compared to the feverish conspiracy theorizing of JFK, or the constant time-jumping and unfocused narrative of his expensive flop, historical epic AlexanderSnowden is maybe one of the most mainstream accessible and straightforward films Stone has directed in a long while.  It’s also worth noting, despite Stone’s unabashed liberal sympathies, that the movie is at least even-handed enough to be critical of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama (Snowden starts out defending Bush against his protest marching girlfriend, then becomes disillusioned and supports Obama’s election campaign, believing in his “hope and change” rhetoric, only to again grow disenchanted when Obama allows Bush’s surveillance programs to continue).  And despite the wrap-around bookend of the movie beginning in 2013 and flashing back over a nearly ten year period, the time-jumping is restrained and for the most part, the narrative remains easy to follow.

Perhaps inevitably, Snowden is a very dense, talky film that requires the audience to try to keep up with a fair amount of technobabble, but for the most part, it does perhaps as simplified a job as can be expected of keeping things easy to follow.  Those looking for a conventional “spy thriller” should look elsewhere, despite Stone’s occasional attempts, with mixed results, to make it feel like one.  Especially in the Hong Kong scenes, with Snowden and his journalist and documentarian accomplices holed up in a hotel room, nervously glancing into empty hallways, Stone tries to generate some paranoid tension, but there’s no real suspense apart from the climactic scene where Snowden steals the files, which holds a surprising amount of tension considering we know the outcome ahead of time.  There’s plenty of unease, and the danger of being arrested or possibly worse, but we’re not in a Jason Bourne movie; geeky Snowden is no action hero, and there’s no car chases or sinister officials dispatching “assets” to take anyone out (although Stone tries to vaguely float the idea that such things aren’t necessarily outside the realm of possibility).  There’s a vaguely Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy vibe to the sequence involving Snowden’s early actual spy mission in Switzerland, where his conscience is troubled for the first time by witnessing the unscrupulous methods used by a colleague (Timothy Olyphant) to get blackmail material on a Saudi business tycoon (for purposes which, it is implied, have more to do with oil and money than the “fighting terrorism” that is used for justification).  There’s also a bit where a co-worker uses cutting edge technology capable of spying through laptop cameras, even if they’re not turned on, for his own voyeuristic kicks watching a woman get undressed in her hotel room (this later leads an increasingly stressed-out and paranoid Snowden to put tape over his own laptop camera, to his girlfriend’s confusion).  And there is one moment of virtuoso visual wizardry, showing in an easy to follow and hard-hitting fashion how a search engine sifts through one man’s contacts, and then all of their contacts, and so on, until one man with possible terrorist connections has given the NSA and CIA a backdoor excuse to be spying on literally millions of people under a flimsy pretext of “the war on terror” (the way Stone visualizes this onscreen brings to mind, of all things, the Cerebro scenes in the X-Men movies).  Snowden’s inevitable theft of the files is the climactic centerpiece moment, but the movie spends the lion’s share of its two hour plus runtime sketching out what brought him to this point, and the building inner conflict that turned a young man who is initially a self-described right-wing conservative driven by patriotic zeal and not questioning his government (he gets in a couple spats with his outspoken liberal girlfriend Lindsay) into a disillusioned whistleblower who leaves behind a well-paying CIA career with a bright future, a cushy post in Hawaii, and his longtime girlfriend to become an international fugitive living out of hotel rooms.  The movie’s focus on Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay is perhaps overemphasized to provide an emotional center (the movie puts more emphasis on it than Snowden himself seems to in the documentary Citizenfour), but in the narrative context, it works effectively enough to humanize our protagonist beyond just a CIA drone.

There’s no more than a passing resemblance between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Edward Snowden, but Gordon-Levitt (who flew to Russia and personally met with Snowden while preparing for the role) immerses himself in a nearly spot-on imitation of Snowden’s mannerisms and distinctive voice and speaking style to the point that an ending transition swapping out Gordon-Levitt for the real Snowden is nearly seamless (the real Glenn Greenwald has called Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal “uncanny”).  Gordon-Levitt, sometimes peppy and energetic, is intentionally dialed down low and subdued (by all accounts, Snowden is a quiet, reserved, low-key personality, and Gordon-Levitt plays him that way), but he conveys Snowden’s quietly growing inner turmoil and a building stoic determination.  It’s not a flashy or attention-grabbing performance, but it’s a quietly solid one.  Apart from Snowden himself, the only other character to get more than cursory attention is Shailene Woodley, who is solid as his conflicted girlfriend Lindsay, who becomes increasingly torn about how far she can follow Edward on his self-appointed mission.  Her character and their scenes together work effectively to show Snowden’s more human side, both in their happy couple moments (mountain hiking together in Hawaii) and in a couple domestic spats over Edward’s secretiveness and the burdens the stress and moral ambiguity of his job puts on both of them and their relationship.  Of the others, the most memorable is Rhys Ifans, adopting a convincing American accent, whose mentor figure Corbin O’Brian is basically our most visible “villain”, a smooth-tongued Svengali who can flicker between teacherly encouragement and unsettling veiled threats (unlike the rest of the characters, whoever “Corbin O’Brian” represents has been given a fictitious name in the movie, either because he wasn’t strictly based on a specific person, or because the portrayal is so unflattering).  Originally known as primarily a comedic actor, Ifans continues to demonstrate that he is capable of playing completely straight.  Also playing it straight is a toned-down Nicolas Cage who drops by in a couple scenes as a colleague of Snowden’s who shares his misgivings, and other familiar faces include Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson (sporting a Scottish accent), and Melissa Leo as the journalists and documentarians with whom Snowden shares his intel, and Timothy Olyphant as Snowden’s slimy colleague in Switzerland.  There are smaller parts for Joely Richardson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Lakeith Stanfield, and Ben Chaplin, and as mentioned before, even a closing cameo from Snowden himself (if there was any lingering doubt that Snowden approves of how he’s portrayed here, this should remove it).

Snowden‘s flaws are fairly minor.  While restrained by his usual standards, Stone can’t resist throwing in at least a couple moments of on-the-nose excess.  There’s a gratuitous sex scene between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley where Snowden is distracted by paranoia that the government is watching them through his laptop camera (complete with typical less-than-subtle Stone overdramatics like abrupt zoom-ins on both Gordon-Levitt’s bulging eyeball and the laptop camera lens), and a climactic confrontation between Snowden and his mentor O’Brian, the latter blown up on a huge wall-length monitor, the better to menacingly glower down upon the dwarfed Snowden, like some embodiment of Big Brother.  The movie’s portrayal of Snowden verges on being so earnest and noble it sends him into “too good to be true movie character” territory, and if it’s ever too subtle about this (it isn’t), it throws in a climactic literal walk into the light.  Probably its biggest hindrance is that, like Gordon-Levitt’s The Walk, it simply doesn’t really bring anything new to the table that anyone interested in the subject couldn’t have already gleaned from the straight documentary Citizenfour.

But the above are minor quibbles.  Taken on its own merits, Snowden is frequently compelling and engrossing, accessible to those who are not already part of Snowden’s fanbase (although needless to say, those will be the ones with the most interest in buying a ticket), and throws in plenty of eerily timely and relevant political commentary.  Whatever one’s opinion of Edward Snowden—the filmmakers’ is not in doubt—the revelations he made are undeniably important.  Perhaps that’s the greatest value of Snowden and indeed, the man himself.

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