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Snowden movie review: Oliver Stone plays nice

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The best and worst thing about Oliver Stone making an Edward Snowden movie is actually the same thing: he was never going to create a realistic level headed drama. You could bet on the veteran firebrand (whose films include Wall Street, Platoon and JFK) embracing the ideological aspect of the whistleblower’s game-changing revelations.

The danger was always that the significance of the Snowden story would be compromised by the director’s heavy-handed tendencies. But Stone is in a reasonably restrained mood for his new film, as if he’s been instructed to respect the book he borrowed from the library, rather than set it on fire and toss it at the teacher. The mild-mannered temperament of the subject himself, played with appropriate modesty by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, appears to have had a calming effect.

That is not to say the first Snowden biopic doesn’t Get Political or use the whistleblower’s life as foundation for Stone’s favourite take-home message: Americans, your government has failed you. In this case the connection is hardly a quantum leap, given its alignment with Snowden’s ethos. As George Clooney wrote in an email leaked during the Sony hack: “Stone will do a hatchet job on the movie, but it will still be the film of Snowden”.

There is a sense of urgency Stone’s hypothesis about a Big Brother world that has been chillingly realised.

The story, retraced in a screenplay co- written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, begins in 2013 in Hong Kong. Documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) are waiting in a public place for an arranged meeting with a mysterious informant. Snowden arrives twirling a Rubik’s Cube. The shorthand message imparted by seeing a Rubik’s-wielder is the same on screen as in real life: this person is no fool, and quite possibly a genius.

Snowden or “Ed” escorts the pair back to his hotel room, closes the blinds and takes their phones. As he explains who he is the plot jumps back to 2004 to detail the period leading up to his discharge from the Special Forces. There’s training, yelling and running around in exercise drills. Lots of “sir yes sir” before Snowden discovers he has two bung legs. It’s always the people who are crap at sport you’ve got to watch out for.

Later, during his time at the NSA, a young gum-chewing whiz kid (Ben Schnetzer), who looks like he belongs somewhere in Silicon Valley with his feet up, shows Ed how the super-snoop interface works. You use keywords to search everything people have made public and everything they haven’t. But, asks Ed, ‘Search who?’. ‘The whole kingdom, Snow White’.

Snowden’s life and relationship with girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) is divulged retrospectively. The story periodically returns to the ‘present’ of the Hong Kong hotel room, re-staging events well-documented in Laura Poitras’ 2014 film Citizenfour.

This structure robs the protagonist of a character arc. We know the man Snowden becomes and, of course, the actions he will commit. You would assume examining their impact – if not Snowden’s legacy so far – would be a compelling, if not compulsory, point of inquiry. But Stone’s interests lie elsewhere: namely in reminding audiences of the value of his subject’s actions and indulging in a bit of hero worship.

The 134 minute running time is over-long, though most of the drama chugs along at a reasonable pace. Nicholas Cage appears early on as a supposedly ingenious mentor-type figure at a CIA training facility. “You’ve come to the right whorehouse,” he says, after Ed quietly remarks that he’s rather fond of computers.

You’ve…what? Come to a…where? It’s a terribly underwritten role, vaguely and confusedly comedic. A bizarrely cast Cage, flailing about with his weird posturing, trademark eyebrow maneuvering and that distinctive intonation, comes close to derailing the whole thing.

Shailene Woodley goes a fine job giving Lindsay dimensions that might not have been present without her. On the other hand the crucial role of Snowdon seems to come easy to Gordon-Levitt. Perhaps that is the ultimate compliment; the actor’s performance is nothing if not well balanced.

Given Stone is in the driver’s seat, that description was never likely to apply to the film itself. Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly a sense of immediacy – even urgency – in the writer/director’s hypothesis about a Big Brother world that has been chillingly realised. If Orwell’s prophecy came true, so did Clooney’s: Stone’s latest is a bit of a hatchet job, but it’s certainly a film of Snowden.

3 responses to “Snowden movie review: Oliver Stone plays nice

  1. “Snowden arrives twirling a Rubik’s Cube. The shorthand message imparted by seeing a Rubik’s-wielder is the same on screen as in real life: this person is no fool, and quite possibly a genius.”

    That isn’t something the director put in as a heavy-handed signifier that Snowden is no fool, it’s what actually happened. That was their previously-agreed sign so Greenwald would know it was him.

  2. A chilling documentary with flashbacks. Even knowing he gets on the ‘plane at the end – and away from the baddies – en route via Moscow to Ecuador (?) – before the baddies cancel his passport and leave him marooned initially at Moscow’s Airport – there was a palpable sigh of relief in the cinema where I saw this – as the ‘plane took off. The part I loved the best though was the James Bond under-the-mountain-secret-city-of-weaponry-or-whatever moment. This movie has it all! And “Snowden II” will surely bring us the suggested things you found missing, Luke!

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