SNOWDEN Review

For the second year in a row now we have a fictionalized account of real-life events that were already well-documented in award-winning documentaries starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing weird accents. And, much like The Walk, the biggest obstacle Snowden was going to need to overcome was that of the one for its own relevancy. Not only did most of the American public see the splattering of media coverage when the Snowden story broke in the summer of 2013, but many also watched Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour, that was released in 2014 and chronicled how Poitras along with Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill traveled to Hong Kong to meet with Edward Snowden and discuss how to break the news of the information the whistleblower was willing to leak. That rather riveting documentary was more than enough to give us a portrait of who this man was and why he did what he did without going into overly dramatized flashbacks or even divulging all of his professional history with the CIA and the military. Solely through how he presented himself in the current circumstances he was facing at the time of Citizenfour viewers glimpsed what type of man Edward Joseph Snowden is and what he might have done were he presented with the dilemma of going along with a CIA field operatives dirty plan or standing up to that more seasoned field agent and doing what he felt was right no matter if it meant him resigning from the agency or not. While we could have likely guessed what path Snowden would have taken given the virtues and sentiments he doles out in his Citizenfour interviews for some reason director Oliver Stone has found it necessary to go back and fill in those gaps just in case you didn't get it. While the idea of a feature film around Snowden isn't inherently a bad one what Stone has chosen to do with the material in telling a straightforward account on the life and times of Snowden in the twelve years leading up to the incident that would make him the, "World's Most Wanted Man" make the idea seem downright unnecessary. Given this is exactly the type of territory Stone has always enjoyed covering, especially when he has a particular point of view on the subject and wants nothing more than to convince you he's right, I expected Snowden to offer a compelling and thoughtful argument and examination for and of the actions Snowden took and why they should be celebrated rather than slammed, but while Stone's position is evident there is nothing here to compel an indifferent viewer one way or the other.

From left: Melissa Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson, and Zachary Quinto star in Snowden.
One could go into how the structure of Snowden is telling of its quality from the get-go. That, by framing the movie with the interactions and events for which most of us have already seen the actual footage we are immediately taken out of the movie and instead inclined to draw comparisons in how well they did at reconstructing the scene. For those that might not have seen Citizenfour then the old trick of having Snowden beginning to talk about a certain time period or event and then flashing back to that event as he looks out his hotel window at the Hong Kong skyline should be enough of an indicator as to how things will go as well. After opening with something of an intriguing set-up that recreates the Citizenfour circumstances we are put through the motions of seeing Snowden in the military at twenty-one as he trains to be Special Ops before breaking both of his legs. This injury leads to a discharge which leads to a career opportunity with the CIA in which Snowden finds something of an inspiration in Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) while remaining under the watchful eye of taskmaster Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans). So far, so good even if it's clear Stone goes in and out of being inspired and on autopilot. After proving his efficiency in coding and computer skills Snowden becomes more interested in working in the field for the Agency and so he is sent to study under the wing of Agent Geneva (Timothy Olyphant), but quickly realizes things aren't the way he imagined forcing him to return to work at an office job for a superior he doesn't feel is utilizing his full potential. Still, this is a key moment in Snowden's history as he meets Gabriel Sol (scene stealer Ben Schnetzer) who divulges the fact the government can essentially see whatever they want via our cell phones and laptops simply by typing in a few key words. The point being made within these mountains of explanations is to show how even a patriot who genuinely believed in respecting the decisions of his nations leaders even if he personally didn't agree with them could come to turn in his point of view and ultimately be demonized by those he once adored and respected.

Though the motivation for his actions begin to take shape it becomes clear all too quick that we're nowhere near the tipping point as Stone intends to keep dragging this out for at least another hour. I distinctly remember taking a look at my phone during this segment featuring Schnetzer to see how far we've come and how far we have left to go. I wasn't thrilled with what I saw as the first hour and ten or so minutes of the drama felt like such a slog through story beats shown for the sake of logical order rather than compelling drama that I was left more bored than intrigued. This is without even mentioning that all the while Stone is weaving in something of a relationship drama as Snowden is managing a rocky relationship with the very artsy and very liberal Lindsay Mills (a wasted Shailene Woodley) who challenges his intelligent yet conservative ways. After reaching a breaking point in both his personal and professional life the film touches on his bout with epilepsy as it finally manifests itself in ways that somewhat allow our titular protagonist to reassess his life and what he wants to do with it/make of it. Deciding that Lindsay was the key to leading a happy and more substantial life, Snowden and Mills move back home to the States and start a quiet, suburban life together. Of course, a man with certain desires and of a certain mentality can't stay still for long and so when the itch as well as an opportunity from old boss O'Brian are presented Snowden is hard pressed to turn the work down. This takes us to Hawaii where Snowden begins working at an NSA contract job meeting up with Sol once again as well as new co-workers Trevor James (Scott Eastwood), Patrick Haynes (Keith Stanfield), and a nameless Logan Marshall-Green. All of this being relayed to us through the lens of Poitras' (played here by Melissa Leo) camera with Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) looking on. Were it not for the routine storytelling and structure that Stone employs these events wouldn't seem to feel nearly as dull. Rather, were the auteur to project them through a more particular prism (pun intended) they would easily prove to be compelling, but as they are this is simply a "safe" version of the Snowden story. A far cry from the more daring work Stone once produced.

Ed Snowden (Jospeh Gordon-Levitt) and girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) take a stroll through D.C.
While I hate to be overly negative towards a film that clearly has admirable intentions and a singular voice these qualities are what also make Snowden one of the more disappointing films of the year. Because there is so much potential here-because we have seen what Stone has done before with real-life historical figures and the dynamite drama he has pulled from such dynamics something as sullen and simple as Snowden can be nothing short of such disappointment. Of all the elements that feel like a let down here the biggest is that I took nothing new away from this story I was only familiar with before. Having seen the news coverage, having read only a handful of articles, and having seen Citizenfour I had but a cursory knowledge of Snowden's actions and yet, watching Stone's film, I came to wonder that question of relevancy as it seemed he didn't particularly have anything new or striking to say on the matter to the point it would justify spending $40 million on it. Does Gordon-Levitt's odd, but sometimes accurate imitation of Snowden ever not become weird? Yeah, eventually and his performance overall is fine enough, but I can't help but feel the talented actor is wasting his time on material like this when he could be making more interesting choices-choices worthy of his talent, but it seems he enjoys a challenge and those accents have certainly proved to be just that. The issue with having Snowden as you're main character though (and even more so with having someone as generally charismatic as Gordon-Levitt play him) is that inescapable fact that Snowden himself isn't necessarily a charismatic or interesting enough guy to base a whole narrative around. More, Snowden is a man who found himself at the center of a decision that would place him in some incredible circumstances, but when taken on a purely personal level Snowden is a sometimes cold, sometimes whiny, other times indeterminate mix of emotions that never quite allows us to empathize with him. Many of those attributes could also describe Snowden, the film, as well. Stone gives audiences little to latch onto as far as emotional resonance, but rather we are delivered a list of facts via pretty actors until we get to the part we all saw on TV and then the credits roll. To reach that point Stone didn't need two hours and fifteen minutes, he didn't need any time at all-he should have instead let this one stew for a little longer until it became a larger part of history with more of an arc and maybe then it would have developed into something worthy of an audiences time, but as it is now there is no need to watch again what you already know.