Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 14 min.
Release Date: September 16th, 2016 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Oliver Stone Actors: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood
fter witnessing countless unethical and unauthorized surveillance techniques while working for the NSA, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) decides to turn whistleblower on the U.S. Government’s criminal endeavors in global spying. As he tells his story to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (the chameleonic Melissa Leo, who is practically unrecognizable in every new role) and The Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Snowden reflects on the events that led to this monumental decision. Beginning with his enlistment in the U.S. Army, then his transition to CIA technology specialist, and finally NSA sub-contractor, the cyber counterintelligence expert recounts his growing concern over the increasingly illegal assignments he is required to enact, as well as the strains such mind-numbing knowledge causes on his relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).
It’s not just based on real events; “Snowden” is a dramatization of actual events. The difference is primarily in the refusal to alter too many truths for the sake of a wilder ride – yet this attention to reality tends to stifle the entertainment value (and certainly a handful of standout sequences appear entirely overblown, such as a scene in which Snowden is interrogated by an enormous projection of a Big Brother-like leader). Of course, if the majority of the happenings are actually fictional, it’s a strange trade-off, since at a certain level of embellishment, director Oliver Stone could have just inserted a car chase or two. But, like a toned-down, simplified version of a John le Carre adaptation, this depiction of spooks and overseers and corrupt governments is mostly technical and slow-moving. James Bond he is not. Plus, it’s difficult to make streams of code an exciting affair; even as the music swells in attempts to generate suspense, the majority of the film is clearly comprised of mild interactions with superiors or relationship drama, rather than field operations full of guns and mayhem.
“The modern battlefield is everywhere.” Whether or not “Snowden” can attract audiences looking for a tense spy thriller, the time spent on character development and eye-opening revelations is wholly watchable. Gordon-Levitt’s voice is momentarily distracting (in much the same way his French accent agitated the opening scenes of “The Walk”), but the many opportunities to humanize a man the government has generally painted as a treasonous monster work nicely – perhaps accidentally – to make his less-than-cinematic tale one worth taking to the big screen. While exposing the partial truths of the media, or witnessing officials blatantly lying during questioning, or seeing the perpetual struggles by the U.S. to remain a dominant force in international cyber-warfare, the film gives audiences a somewhat ordinary man (though a genius when it comes to computers) as a primary perspective for the always-pertinent decision between freedom and security. It’s made abundantly clear that average citizens can have one, not both. But it refuses to ask if there’s a middle ground, or if the U.S. is even the trailblazer among internal surveillance for body politics across the world (which it’s most assuredly not).
“You’d think intelligence would count for something in the intelligence business,” muses CIA instructor Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage). Amusingly, the film isn’t preachy when it comes to Snowden’s actions, nor does it personify the villainy of the United States’ grotesque overreach of data collection. There are many individuals to dislike, but the picture does more to highlight the nation’s seemingly iniquitous desire for leverage or an advantage over other countries, which comes with the consequence of looking oppressive or dispensing with transparency. Like “Eye in the Sky” or “Spotlight,” it doesn’t take much to rile viewers with controversial topics that will hopefully jumpstart conversations and debates; the policies in question are fascinating and horrifying all at once. And despite a sloppily-edited finale (which shows the real-life Snowden too soon, abruptly taking audiences out of the fantasy of a dramatization before the standard end-credits montage and coda), there’s a sense of closure and a moderately happy ending that many won’t expect from a public figure who has unpredictably found contentment in his role as an astonishing, catastrophic whistleblower.
– The Massie Twins