SNOWDEN (6 out of 10) Directed by Oliver Stone; Written by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone; Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant; Running time 132 minutes; Rated R for “language and some sexuality/nudity”; In wide release September 16, 2016.
Love him or hate him, Edward Snowden has been one of the more consequential people of the last five years. Oliver Stone is obviously in the love camp, as he spends all two hours and 14 minutes of this film slobbering all over himself to show what a hero her thinks the former CIA/NSA whistleblower was. And boy, does it feel every minute of that runtime, and every bit as paranoid as you would expect from Oliver Stone, who seems to have missed the point of what Snowden did.
So, as a film, it’s kind of all over the place and uneven. As a political statement, it’s completely whackadoodle. But as a stage to display the acting talents of its cast? It is masterful, and that is what is worth seeing here.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt deserves an Oscar nomination here. He completely nails Snowden’s mannerisms and vocal inflection and portrays him very honestly, if not altogether flatteringly. One critque of Snowden as a person is he’s kind of a right wing douche. And JGL nails it.
But really who keeps this film from being an unwatchable slobberfest is Shailene Woodley, who plays Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills. She brings in a conscience, some real-life pathos, and in many ways acts as the audience’s way in to the story as really the only relatable character in here.
The supporting cast is equally impressive. The film follows the journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewan MacAskill, played by Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo and Tom Wilkinson, respectively, as they interview Snowden in a posh Hong Kong hotel and then flashes back to portions of his life. Coming in and out of the story are Snowden’s CIA trainers and partners, as played by Rhys Ifans, Nicholas Cage, and Timothy Olyphant, all of whom put forth amazing performances, even if a little over the top at times.
In one such sequence, Ifans appears, larger than life, on a jumbotron-sized screen to yell at Edward Snowden, Big Brother-style, as if we didn’t already get the idea that the big, bad government was watching us and looking down on us. In another, Nick Cage sits in an easy chair at home enjoying a beer when his former student shows up on the news, forcing him to exclaim with the pride of a parent seeing their kid hit a little league home run, “The boy done good! He did it! He actually did it!” *sigh* At least their performances were memorable, despite their director and screenwriters’ plans seemingly to sabotage their own film with heavy-handedness.
It’s worth noting Poitras’s portayal in the film by Melissa Leo, as the footage she got here was used in the (much better) documentary Citizenfour, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2015. This is the only time in recent memory where a fictionalized movie portrayed the filming of a much better documentary. It’s unfortunate because everything Citizenfour did right, this film did wrong. However, there are a few moments between Leo and JGL that are off-camera that are beautiful and magical as two very different types of people share understanding and connection.
It’s too bad this film doesn’t take its subject matter more seriously. It’s too wrapped up in its own spin of the circumstances that led to government mass surveillance that it makes itself blind to the very real issues that still face us in this country. In this sense, it compares most notably to Stone’s frat-boy-nice-guy depiction of George W. Bush in W almost a decade ago. But he gives Snowden a pass, just like he gave W. a pass, just like he gave Nixon a pass.
Like Snowden himself, the film is naive and doesn’t understand or depict any of the root causes of any of this. And the fault, Dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves. Stone and Snowden seem to think that Obama is the problem, rather than the root being in the military-industrial complex and in our very human nature. Snowden thought by releasing all this info then the public could decide what to do about it. Well, here we are three years later, and nothing has changed. And we’re likely to elect someone as president in less than two months who will undoubtedly expand the reach and perniciousness of government surveillance. And never once has government mass surveillance been brought up.
Because we don’t want it to. Let’s deal with that fact.
A good film about Snowden would’ve turned this back around on us as the audience and made us feel like it was our duty to do something about it just as he did. But our “hero” is simply too much of a douche to inspire that sort of feeling.
Kudos to JGL for making him even the slightest bit likeable and sympathetic, and megakudos to Woodley for showing him some love, because Crom knows that this film doesn’t. If you want a better take on these specific events, watch citizenfour. If you want a fictionalized movie that deals with these moral and ethical issues in a far better way that this film does, go check out Eye in the Sky with Helen Mirren and the last starring performance by Alan Rickman. But Snowden is kind of a mess.
6 out of 10