- Movie Rating -

Snowden (2016)

| September 16, 2016

Where you stand with Oliver Stone’s biopic Snowden depends largely on where you sit.  If you believe that Edward Snowden was a hero who brought to light a corrupt government that was using post-9/11 paranoia as an excuse to become an omnipresent and all-intrusive Big Brother then the movie will be right up your alley.  However, if you believe that Snowden was a liar, a criminal and a traitor to his country then the movie will make you feel as if you’re being peppered with fleas.  You should know right out of gate that this is a movie that celebrates Snowden as a modern-day hero.  With that, you probably know on which side of the fence you will fall.

Where I personally stand with regards to Snowden is of little matter.  I’m not here to judge the real Snowden but to give an assessment of the film that bears his name.  With a movie that deals with such a contentious figure, I will say that I expected much better from its director.  Oliver Stone is the most abrasive liberal pitchforks of modern times next to Michael Moore (though Stone, at least, maintains his dignity).  Twenty-Five years have passed since he angered nearly the entire journalistic community with JFK, a three-hour grab bag of nutty political conspiracy theories about The Kennedy Assassination that offered so many suspects and trutherisms that by its end you weren’t sure who Stone thought didn’t do the shooting.  Then he made Nixon, a brilliant but admittedly flywheel biopic of the life and times of the 37th President of the United States featuring an unlikely performance by Anthony Hopkins in the lead.  With those two films it was kind of fun watching Stone stick a fork in the political machine and dig up conspiracy theories so bizarre that you’d think they came from a science fiction writer.

Since those two films, Stone’s work has been kind of safe.  He treads light waters when dealing with sticky subjects like 9/11, George W. Bush and even Alexander the Great.  His films lack the fire that they once had and, truth be told, Snowden is the latest in that list.  This is a straight-forward telling of a man whose tale was almost made for Oliver Stone, but it lacks any fire or energy.  It doesn’t challenge us.

Snowden plays very much off of the success of the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour.  In fact, it’s hard not to watch the film and wonder why you’re not simply watching that.  Almost beat for beat we get the same information, but of course, here we’re getting it second hand.  In fact, the movie opens with a reenactment of the meeting between Edward Snowden and Citizenfour’s producer/director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto).  They are meeting Snowden in his luxury hotel room at The Mira in Tokyo where Snowden immediately asks for their cellphones – he places them in the microwave so they can’t be tracked.  The hotel setting provides the film’s framework in which Snowden relays his story.

Snowden recounts in flashback three different parts of his story: First, how his top-secret CIA clearance allowed him to gain knowledge that the government was using the paranoia over 9/11 to build an intrusive spy network that was not only illegal but grossly immoral.  Second, what his tight-lipped veil of secrecy did to his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and third a rundown of Snowden’s actions when he could no longer keep silent.  In other words, nothing surprising.  They are handled as a straight forward story without any real twists or turns.  If you know Snowden’s story then none of this will come as any shock.  If you saw Citizenfour or just followed the story in the news then the film trajectory is already clear to you even while you’re reading this review.

Edward Snowden is played here in an odd performance by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who spends the entire movie using a weird vocal intonation that is obviously suppose to sound like the real Snowden, but comes off as distracting.  The movie gives him plenty to do, but it’s not at all challenging.  What happens in the movie is inevitable.  Is it surprising that this skinny kid wasn’t fit for the army?  Is it surprising that he was a brainiac who could ace a five-hour test in 40 minutes?  The answer is not surprising and neither is Levitt’s performance.  He gives his all to the role but, truth be told, we really don’t really learn that much about him.  Snowden is the piece to move around the story.

Even with the emotional weight that the movie tries to put on Snowden, the outward conflict doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Early in the film he is rooted out by the government because of his ability to solve difficult problems, but he’s hired by the CIA because he asks a lot of questions and then questions what he’s doing.  Why would the CIA want someone like this?  And if they hired him on that basis, why would they be surprised when he blew the whistle?  Even if you don’t know Snowden’s story, the narrative structure feels strangely out of step with regards to basic common sense.  Midway through the film, when he is shown the level of the government’s surveillance, his reaction is shock and horror despite the fact that anyone, even a wunderkind like Snowden, wouldn’t be all that surprised by this in a post-9/11 environment.

Even Snowden’s relationship with this girlfriend comes off a little misguided.  They develop an initially sweet relationship and start living together but his approach to Lindsay has an undercurrent of condescension.  Once it settles in, their relationship becomes the standard why-don’t-you-talk-to-me-anymore kinds of boilerplate nonsense.  Shailene Woodley, one of the best underrated actresses working right now is given the thankless role of being Snowden’s good-natured doormat.  For an actress of her natural talent, she deserves much better.

Maybe the biggest misstep in Snowden is that it stays very insular.  It’s all about Snowden but we miss the wider birth of what he’s uncovering.  Yes, we see an instance of a government employee watching a Muslim woman getting undressed in their hotel room via her laptop camera and later there’s a neat rundown of how the government takes one Pakistani immigrant and moves farther and farther outward from his familial and personal relationships to find someone anyone who might be a seen threat and then disrupts the life of a man who has done nothing wrong.  That’s interesting stuff; it’s an energetic and revealing scene but its ten minutes out of a movie that should have been so much more.  We already know Snowden’s story.  We know what he did and why he did it, so the movie becomes a rundown rather than a narrative.

Plus, the movie doesn’t challenge us to consider what Snowden did.  The final act of the movie is given over to a lovefest for the man that Stone sees as a hero.  Where are the questions?  Where are the challenges?  Where are the moral issues?  Do you believe that the government was wrong?  Do you believe that Snowden was wrong?  Do you think there’s any justification from either side?  Do two wrongs make a right?  These are the questions Stone really should have written down when preparing to make this movie because they were questions I had when preparing to watch it.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2016) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized