Snowden


★★★★

Directed by Oliver Stone Written by Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Tom Wilkinson, Nicholas Cage, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo & Joely Richardson Film Review by Dean Pettipher


Few of the high-profile decision-makers in Hollywood have so clearly built up a repertoire of films that has amounted to a career swinging in a notoriously unpredictable fashion, from terrific to terrible and back again with a handful of perfectly decent albeit ultimately forgettable mentions in-between, like the filmography of Oliver Stone. Genre-defining masterworks like Platoon (1986) entrenched within the collective cinema psyche that Stone possesses artistic flair beyond measure; excruciatingly frustrating silver screen backfires like Alexander (2004) prompted audiences to wonder in despair what on earth might have possessed Stone at the expense of his incredible talent and often striking artistic boldness. The projects that fall into the latter category are the best illustrations of the notion that a film will not enjoy inevitable critical or commercial success simply because it features an overwhelmingly star-studded assemblage of actors, actresses and crew members. Of course, there are plenty of overall solid storytelling delights as well, such as Savages (2012), which in the moment inspire feelings of intense pleasure but ultimately struggle to say anything of distinguishing significance that might stay with many audiences in the long-term. To Stone’s credit, his movies, whether they turn out to be timeless achievements or damning exercises of creative madness, feature consistently intriguing subjects. Stone’s latest venture as a director and co-writer, Snowden (2016) thrives on that very quality and in short hacks into audience sensibilities to the extent where it comfortably lands within the region between the fabulous and the forgettable, leaning more towards the former standard as a result of not totally forsaking the essential ingredient of a good story well-told.

While fervent film fans might ultimately find knowing the roots of the movie unnecessary for truly appreciating its story-driven and financially-motivated ambitions of exploring the central political imbroglio, they may find their viewing and subsequent interpretations of the picture enhanced by at least a sprinkling of background information. Indeed, one might be surprised about just how many people have forgotten about or even never heard of the true story behind the drama. In June 2013, a computer professional, named Edward Snowden, leaked a plethora of classified National Security Agency (NSA) documents to journalists. Snowden’s disclosures exposed the systematic surveillance of civilians in America and across the globe, which triggered a state of anger and humiliation amongst many of those who made up the American intelligence community. Snowden has been living in Russia as an asylum-seeker in exile since August 2013. Having been charged under the Espionage Act, he would at present have to face up to thirty years in prison if he returned to the United States. While not the highest priority of the agenda of international affairs, debate about whether or not Snowden is a hero or a traitor continues to re-surface again and again within mainstream discussion. Stone’s dramatization of the key events in Snowden’s life, leading up to the immediate aftermath of his fateful decision to defy his government for the sake of his deeply-felt principles, stylistically adopts the traits of the espionage thriller and undeniably presents Snowden as a hero, or at least as a man whose intentions were selfless and good. While far from thrilling from beginning to end, the handful of bugs lurking within the film are often compensated for by a remarkable number of engrossing pop-ups that encourage audiences to delve further into the real-life version of Snowden’s story, which may at present be best articulated by the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour (2014). Nonetheless, the fundamentally cautious Stone-helmed tale remains a well-executed movie that has a surprisingly decent amount to suggest about various liberties, sources of pleasure and cradles of satisfaction, all of which everyone has taken for granted at some stage in their lives, without or without realizing it.


The performances in Snowden from the star-studded ensemble are, overall, perfectly engaging. However, few of the actors demonstrate another facet of their respective dramatic talents that audiences have witnessed heretofore. In fact, only Joseph Gordon-Levitt pulls out some truly impressive artistic surprises. His best-known performances in Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Looper (2012) and 500 Days of Summer (2009) have all served as illustrations of how he can raise credible characters from script to screen in a uniquely charismatic and graceful fashion. Nonetheless, all of the protagonists or the supporting characters from the aforementioned credits thrive off of the pretty boy or indeed the bad boy oversimplifications within their particular stories. To his credit, Gordon-Levitt is able to consistently inject a significant degree of emotional and comic depth into his work, suggesting that he deserves the opportunity to branch out into an array of more diverse roles. Such a potential development is reminiscent of how Leonardo DiCaprio determinedly fought against being pigeon-holed into the teenage-heartthrob oversimplification after his immeasurable success with Titanic (1997). DiCaprio reportedly turning down roles in films like Spider-Man (2002) and the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (1999-2005) in order to play more mature roles, which, fortunately for DiCaprio, led to triumphs on an even grander critical scale, such as The Aviator (2004), which in turn played a part in paving the often uncertain but potentially very fruitful road of opportunity towards his tremendous leading parts in unforgettable features like Blood Diamond (2006) and The Revenant (2015). Gordon-Levitt’s performance in Snowden warrants similar merits and opportunities. Having previously shown that he can comfortably bring historical figures to life in Lincoln (2012) and The Walk (2015), as well as how he is truly a filmmaker who performs, writes and also directs with distinctly pure heart and unflinching honesty with Don Jon (2013), while he in truth does not look or sound exactly like the real Edward Snowden in a manner that Forest Whitaker pulled off with The Last King of Scotland (2006) or in a way that only Philip Seymour Hoffman could have achieved in Capote (2005), Gordon-Levitt comes as close to the real person he plays as he possibly could. The result is one of his best, most inspiring performances to date. More than once will audiences be captivated into a state where they happily forget who the actor behind the character is, despite the clear aesthetic giveaways. Such a surprisingly good performance has come about because of nothing less than hard, meticulous work from Gordon-Levitt that would make even the likes of Stanislavsky proud.

During his appearance on the Graham Norton Show (2007-Present), Gordon-Levitt was given the opportunity to discuss his preparation for the role of Edward Snowden and how it led to one of his most rewarding career highlights. He stated, “Before we shot, I went over to Moscow and I sat with him [Edward Snowden] in an office for about four hours.” He went on to declare, “This is the thing about when you play a real-life person. You get certain feedback when you’re an actor and that’s meaningful. It’s meaningful when an audience likes the movie or [when] it gets good reviews or maybe it gets good box office, or whatever. And that’s all great.” Now at the core of his point, he asserted, “His [Edward Snowden’s] mom took me aside and was like, ‘You reminded me of my son.’ And his [Edward Snowden’s] dad took me aside and he made sure to look me in the eye and he said, ‘I want to thank you for what you did because I know this was risky for you and some people aren’t going to like you for it but I really appreciate you doing this for my son.’” In concluding his passionate explanation, Gordon-Levitt professed, “I’ve never received feedback like that for an acting job that I did. It meant so much to me. It really made my year to have those moments with his parents.” In Snowden, Gordon-Levitt’s thorough research and professional artistic sensitivity have paid off, highlighted by his effortless employment of intricate mannerisms, his careful execution of Snowden’s more furtive actions, his deep voice with a typically reserved quality in its tone and his intriguing facial expressions. There may certainly have been an actor out there who might have sounded or looked exactly like Snowden but the abundant air of charm and cautiousness that Gordon-Levitt brings to the character allows for his interpretation to be the compelling leading force of the picture.


The most notable supporting roles in Snowden are those occupied by Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans and Zachary Quinto. Woodley plays the love interest of the story with elegance and a relentlessly firm grip on all of the emotional extremes not seen since her remarkable performance in The Descendants (2011) or, more recently, her definitive leading role in The Fault in Our Stars (2014). Rhys Ifans portrays one of the principle antagonistic forces of the tale in the form of a cold, unpredictably tempered decision-maker within the American intelligence community, highlighting the already well-understood versatility of his skills, especially when one sits Ifan’s Snowden contribution alongside his parts in Notting Hill (1999) and Anonymous (2011). Quinto similarly shows off his versatility as an animated journalist often losing his sanity due to his fear of the potentially devastating consequences that his secret interactions with Snowden might demand. Quinto nicely displays a personality that contrasts in many obvious and subtle ways with his crucial role in the latest Star Trek film series (2009-present). Snowden is without question held together by its performances, for they are just about the only aspects of the movie that help it to feel at least faintly fresh within the vast library of biographical political thriller movies, which include cinematic strokes of genius like All the President’s Men (1976).

The narrative style of Snowden feels like a good but not great variation of the one that is best employed for the first season of True Detective (2014-present). To be taken back and forth between past and present and then propelled forward at a breath-taking pace into the immediate future proves to be essential for maintaining substantial emotional investment in Snowden’s story. Unfortunately, roughly around the middle of the movie, the pace becomes so slow in comparison to its comfortable opening speed or its exhilarating closing swiftness that one suddenly feels an overwhelming tiredness fuelled by the unpleasant, detached spectre of boredom. The detective drama led by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson maintains consistently incredible tension and suspense because of how acutely selective the writing and directing decisions are with their arrangement of events. Backstory is teasingly offered throughout and the events are tied stylishly together by means that no other narrative arrangement of the same accounts could really compare with. With Snowden, sometimes so much focus is given to a seemingly unimportant moment of his past that the high stakes of his present situation repeatedly start to dry up. Fortunately, just about enough of a sense that impending danger is near remains to allow for a fairly climactic and thought-provoking final act.

Snowden features an interesting amount of globe-trotting, which is, on the whole, nicely presented. On the other hand, one wishes that the cinematography could have capitalized upon its variety of locations in order to create some truly beautiful and opulent scenery shots and somehow cleverly link them to Snowden’s character development. From Washington D.C., to Hawaii, to Japan and beyond, the craftsmen behind Snowden would have been more than capable of employing their various story backdrops more creatively in a way that did not feel contrived or as if a spy thriller was the ultimate goal. Still, between the generally plain, gloomy exterior and interior shots, as well as the unoriginal albeit more colourful and vibrant shots of the virtual reality world, the three spaces together create a fascinating sense of protagonist isolation that encourages audiences to appreciate the sheer scale and cost of his supposedly benign, people-focused endeavours.


In the end, Snowden is a very, very good production that has a surprising amount to say about what it feels like to be the little person being walked all over at leisure by a large and powerful organization that somehow manages to ceaselessly and shamelessly convey to much of the rest of the world that it is a role-model for good, to the point where the little person can feel trapped in isolation and easily pounced upon by loneliness and the subsequent insanity. The screenplay reveals and plays around with enough to spark audience interest in the Snowden debate while also highlighting the much broader point of not taking the significant elements of one’s life for granted, such as family, romantic relationships and life principles. Whether audiences agree with the interpretation or not, Stone’s depiction of Snowden as a man of benevolent intentions is very well-executed, even if it feels quite careful, as if just one untoward scene or line of dialogue might destroy the careers of everyone involved in the movie. Since getting a career in Hollywood is, as DiCaprio puts it, like “winning the lottery,” one cannot judge such cautious behaviour too harshly, especially since the focus has clearly remained, as it should do, on telling a good story. The movie more than warrants the price of a movie ticket but not a pressing need for a second viewing. Fortunately, the film’s interpretation of Snowden seems very close to what the real Edward Snowden might have most appreciated.

During an interview with ABC News in December 2016, for which the news anchor named Katie Couric travelled to Russia, Edward Snowden made a number of emotionally and cognitively stimulating points. He stated that “we should always make a distinction that right and wrong is a very different standard than legal and illegal.” When asked about his fateful decision to share classified information with the media, he went on to say, “I would not have done it if I didn’t believe it was right.” Finally, he concluded by asserting, “I would do it again. No regrets at all.” Stone’s interpretation of Snowden appears firmly in line with what little the world now sees of the real-life exiled intelligence professional. One wonders whether or not Stone and the team hoped that the movie would encourage a continued growth in the support for the Pardon Snowden Campaign, or at least inspire a more open-minded perception of the man and his motives for defying his government. Ultimately, however, both as a clear source of entertainment and as a possible political tool, the film will leave a few faint lasting impressions before falling under the shadow of better movies and more urgent political concerns.

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