Synopsis – The NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques are leaked to the public by one of the agency’s employees, Edward Snowden, in the form of thousands of classified documents distributed to the press.
My Take – Unless you have been living under a bush all this years, you would have no idea who Edward Snowden is. Back in 2013, Snowden a former employee of the CIA and a United States government contractor, copied and leaked classified information from the NSA which disclosed numerous global surveillance programs, many run by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments. While the verdict is still out on whether Snowden is a hero or a whistleblower or a dissident or a patriot or a traitor, what triggered in the mind of the computer whiz to lead him into such an action is a story that remains to be told. While I haven’t seen the acclaimed documentary Citizenfour by Laura Poitras, who was actually present when the former NSA contractor met with journalists from The Guardian, leaking classified documents that revealed the U.S. government’s penchant for spying on its own citizens, a Hollywood representation of the events leading to the event seemed like an interesting thing to catch on the big screen. And who better to make a film on this controversial figure, a director who’s not afraid to tackle matters of war, conspiracy and controversial American political issues. Only this time, director Oliver Stone has upgraded his latest film’s look and tone to make it seem more digitally advanced, which is fine because it fits the story of Edward Snowden and we’re living in this day and age where every millennia’s favorite series happens to be a little show called Mr. Robot. And as you’ve guessed it, this film is a thriller about the titular character who despite his patriotism is conflicted about how the government runs its operations in the name of national security. This film dramatizes the events that led Snowden to becoming one of the most wanted men in the world.
Based on the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding & Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena, the story follows Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who following the events of 9/11 attempts to join the military which was thwarted due to a degenerative leg injury. Snowden quickly goes from the hospital bed to the CIA and uses his cockiness and his innate ability to write code and interpret data. Under the wing of protégé Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), & agent-turned-instructor Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) Snowden quickly gets fast tracked through the ranks and travels the world in efforts of National Security. Along the way, Snowden meets Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) who despite the secrecy around his job & the difficulties in their relationship stands by her man. Switching back and forth in time between his revealing interview with Guardian reporters, Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) & Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in the presence of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the changing movements of his life, the film closely follows the trials and tribulations of the world’s most wanted man. Based on his recent filmography no one would likely have predicted that director Oliver Stone’s treatment of the same events—fashioned as a docudrama in the same mold as his JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995)—would be his return to form. The film is essentially a part conspiracy thriller, part relationship drama, and to a certain extent, part heist. It’s a riveting film that keeps you engaged and more importantly gets you thinking, which I think is the goal of this Oliver Stone film. The film throws light on how the US government expanded it’s powers under the pretext of terrorism, after a tragedy that shut down all thinking. Powered by genuine fear of terrorists created as a result of imperialistic and abusive foreign policy, the American public has ignored waste of tens of billions of tax-dollars that could’ve been spent on health care, infrastructure and education. Developed in secrecy, perfected by attacking the Middle-East, everything from surveillance blimps to state-sponsored malware is now rapidly being deployed in the US. Saying it took guts to blow whistle on corruption within the world’s largest intelligence establishment is a complete understatement. Democratic governments don’t understand that privacy is a universal human right, and to hand it away for the sake of security reduces it to a mere privilege. Here, director Stone, who wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald depicts the gradual evolution of Snowden’s conscience, which entails observing his largely eventful life over nearly a decade. There is something very compelling about watching young Ed struggle through Special Forces training, and later becoming heavily invested in his long-term relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills, despite their cutesy antagonism stemming from her proto-Bernie liberalism clashing with his more conservative views.
The film also successfully helps in portraying Nicolas Cage in a good light (after a long time), who shows up to provide a lesson on the history of encryption and its roots in early computers. Despite some shake ups in the middle, the film cuts through the noise in rare voice from time to time. At one point, Stone envisions the web created by a single CIA search: when one person is watched, their whole family and friends and network of tangential connections are also watched. And the connections of those people are watched. And in a more restrained film (well, for Stone) than some of the director’s recent work, it’s a bombastic moment which articulates the kind of Big Brother dread that Snowden lived with for so many years before going public. Likewise, when O’Brian confronts a pre-flight Snowden in an interrogation using a wall-size computer projection of himself, it’s an effective high dramatization; Ifans’ all-knowing overlord reducing Snowden to a place of absolute submission. Though not of all the visual gambits pay off (a late, kaleidoscopic farewell to Snowden is especially noticeably contrived.), the film is able to match the scale of its hard-sell intentions. My only problem with the film as a whole would be that it firmly acts as a form of hero worship, which of course works both for and against it. In the film’s favor, Stone finds himself returning to themes from some of his most well-regarded work: the valor of political sedition, the American government’s relationships to its people, the everyday dystopia of a wired-in world, the terrors of war. On the other side, the film loses some of its power in its total unwillingness to engage with the complicated morality of Snowden’s deeds; even when Corbin O’Brian, the CIA director tells him early on that “you don’t have to agree with your politicians to be a patriot.” The film makes its argument clear from early on: this act was a matter of absolute moral necessity. Knowing that somebody is always watching, even when he is having sex with his girl friend, Snowden lets his paranoia gets the better of him. Using this as a factor, director Stone at times forces us to believe Snowden as a sympathetic disillusioned patriot, who was forced into his actions by his realization that the US spying has spiraled completely out of control. Which in my opinion was a bit hard to digest and a little one note. In the titular role, Joseph Gordon-Levitt who I think went above and beyond in not only capturing Edward Snowden’s mannerism and the way he speaks but my goodness, Gordon-Levitt‘s performance in this film is so calculating and precise, you can see his brains constantly work itself out, just by looking at him. And Shailene Woodley gives her most mature performance yet, because this film is more than just about the whole surveillance controversy, it’s also about how that negatively affects Snowden & Mills relationship and I think it’s fairly handled, both aspects don’t take away or diminish each other’s importance in the process. In supporting roles, Rhys Ifans is menacing, while Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richarson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood & Nicholas Cage play their parts well. On the whole, ‘Snowden’ is an intense thrilling sincere portrayal of one of the world’s most controversial figures.
Directed – Oliver Stone
Rating – R
Run Time – 134 minutes