Friday, September 16

REVIEW: Snowden

Directed by Oliver Stone
Biographical Drama
2 hours 14 minutes
From Open Road Films

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Shailene Woodley
Rhys Ifans
Zachary Quinto
Melissa Leo
Tom Wilkinson
Ben Schnetzer
Timothy Olyphant
Scott Eastwood
Joely Richardson
Ben Chaplin
Nicolas Cage 

The NSA's migraine headache has become the subject of a stirring Oliver Stone film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in one of the best fitting roles of his long career.  How one will judge this film (or even see it) will certainly fall into political camps and be judged by whether one regards Snowden primarily as a traitor, hacker, spy, hero or patriot.

I judge it on how it stands as a film, an Oliver Stone film no less. He likes his politically-flavored films (JFK, Nixon) but rather than cooking them up according to the established recipe, he prefers adding his own ingredients, often turning history into his revisionist versions.  I've never particularly minded his approach to selected material because he makes me sit up, take notice and even get emotional about what I've witnessed.  I found Snowden to be a decent thriller with good pacing, great editing and a chance to learn something about a man I never knew much about.  Flesh and blood was given to this story, especially with respect to his personal life, his health and his relationship with girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, but also his backstory starting with his time in the army and a certain genius in the world of computers.  

The story opens in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden, who has no illusions about his fate, meets with two reporters and a documentary filmmaker to tell his story. The experience will eventually be turned into the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour. Through flashbacks we see Snowden's work at the NSA as he uncovers illegal wiretapping and dumps thousands of classified documents to prove his case into the press. 

Snowden's relationship with Mills is tested because he is less than forthcoming with her about what he's really up to and she's rightly concerned as things seem to get darker and darker.  She remains dedicated to him, however, and a scrawl in the end credits advises that she is with him in Russia. Certainly the glimpse into their relationship allows the film some relief from mountains of techno-babble.

By and large I found there is generally fair reporting... all sides of the issue seem to be represented although Stone is unquestionably sympathetic toward Snowden. Both the director and Gordon-Levitt met with Snowden in Russia which is more than can be said of Stone with his previous presidential biographies.  The focus is not on terrorism but rather about what's at stake in this country, mainly keeping the government transparent and accountable particularly in its quest to maintain economic and social control.  On the other hand, the man broke the law.

Rhys Ifans plays a fictional CIA honcho who informs Snowden that most Americans don't want freedom.  They want security.  The comment opened Snowden's eyes and lit the path for him to do what he did.  It is a line I may long remember.

Gordon-Levitt did nail this performance.  He seemed to capture Snowden's temperament, speech patterns and looks.  There were moments when he had a light coating of beard when I thought it was Snowden. Woodley doesn't look anything like the real Mills but the character's lively demeanor is a refreshing change from the sometimes dour Snowden.  The large supporting cast was also most impressive.

Like all whistleblower movies (Serpico, Silkwood, The Insider and Erin Brockovich come immediately to mind), one wonders whether it will change the public's minds on the man in the spotlight and/or whistleblowing in general. Those other films, however, were pure history whereas Edward Snowden's situation is still a work in progress. The film comes on the heels of a campaign being launched this week to get President Obama to pardon Snowden before leaving the White House.  I suspect Oliver Stone would be pleased to think his movie might create a groundswell to get that accomplished.

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Good 40s film

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