Sunday, April 16, 2017
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield,
Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage
Running Time: 134 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
At what cost? That question runs through Oliver Stone's Snowden, and the controversial figure around which his film revolves, government whistleblower Edward Snowden, who in 2013 infamously leaked to the media classified information on mass surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency. Such a hot-button topic would seem ideal for Stone, the maverick director and Vietnam vet who's made a career of tackling socially and politically charged material with an "in your face" style in films like JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. But that Oliver Stone is gone. Already showing signs of it with his relatively fair, if even somewhat sympathetic, treatment of President George W. Bush in 2008's underrated W., Stone's interest in pushing buttons has diminished considerably in recent years. On one hand, it's a shame since it's never been more necessary, but on another, it's easy to argue he's earned the right and can't be expected to keep repeating himself. A straightforward but exceptionally well made biopic, Snowden represents more of this new, slicker, mainstream Stone uninterested in courting "controversy."
What this does contain is ideas and a sense of urgency surrounding an issue that shouldn't really be all that controversial on paper. It's pretty simple and boils down to whether you feel the moral price of our security is worth the cost of giving up a certain amount of our constitutional freedom. But where you stand on that issue may determine not only to your personal feelings on Snowden and his actions, but perhaps even which side of the political fence you fall. In that sense, it's touchy, and the film does a compelling job dramatizing both sides of that ethical dilemma, even in scenes you wouldn't expect. It also contains a romantic subplot that doesn't feel like one, less a throwaway than a natural and pertinent extension of the main plot, featuring characters whose futures we care about despite our familiarity with the outcome.
As tame as Stone's become, anyone expecting complete impartiality won't get it, with the screenplay clearly showing an allegiance to Snowden, played by a scarily well cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as kind of a tragic antihero to be revered and celebrated for his sacrifices. Make of Stone's stance what you will, but anyone that shocked or even offended the government has these capabilities probably have their heads buried in the sand. Snowden wasn't telling us anything we really shouldn't have assumed already. The real question was whether he had the right to do it and the potentially dangerous precedent that's set when someone does.
Based on two non-fiction books covering the events, the film picks up in 2013, with Ed Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) hauled up in a Hong Kong hotel room secretly meeting with documentarian and Citizenfour director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskell (Tom Wilkinson). Preparing to spill his guts to them while simultaneously releasing of the NSA's top secret surveillance data to the media, flashbacks paint a complicated picture of Snowden, an antisocial conservative who finds himself working for the cyberwarfare arm of the CIA after being discharged from the Army.
Snowden picks up the intricacies quickly, becoming a star student of Deputy Director Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans) before moving on to the NSA and making some disturbing discoveries about how the government is acquiring data and potentially violating citizens' rights. As his disillusionment grows, the only constant is free-spirited girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), an Obama-supporting liberal who tolerates his opposing political beliefs up to the point where even he starts to doubt them, the stress of his job eventually threatening his health and that of their relationship. Armed with incriminating evidence that can shake the U.S. government to its core, Snowden makes a fateful decision, insuring that his life will never be the same again.
A lot of information is dispensed about Snowden's background and what there is to glean of his personality, which can best be described as "robotic." It's an adjective he's even assigned to himself, as he often comes across as someone suffering from some kind of anti-social disorder, demonstrating behaviors that don't seem all that dissimilar from Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. While lacking that character's worst narcissistic tendencies, Snowden's intelligence is undeniably his worst enemy at times, as well as his most dangerous weapon. Holding political beliefs in direct opposition to what he eventually does, his time in the CIA and NSA trenches establish him as an important cog in the government's machine, his cyber skills essential in their burgeoning electronic surveillance program. But as his climbs the ranks, the more he sees, and the more his anxiety and guilt grow.
This isn't an easy role to play as far as real-life public figures go, or even otherwise, as in the place of a distinctive personality, Snowden is imbued with a rote, mechanical sense of duty that's eventually shaken. Lowering an already deep voice a few octaves lower, JGL has the flat affect and emotionless verbal delivery down pat and looks enough like his subject, but where he really excels in capturing Snowden's inner struggle. The government's actions contradict everything he signed on for but risking the comfort and security his occupation provides Lindsay and himself in the name of "doing what's right" may not be worth the price.
It's a credit to Stone and Kieran Fitzgerld's screenplay that Edward's relationship with Lindsay isn't treated as an afterthought with the latter having thoughts, complaints and opinions worth listening to and fighting about, as an impressive Woodley confidently sidesteps the trap that too often marginalizes girlfriend characters in male-driven biopics. Strong in a role she seems ideal for, audiences will undoubtedly draw parallels between the actress and the idealistic hippie she portrays. The presentation of Snowden as a selfish, thoughtless boyfriend consumed by his job could be viewed as the director's conscious effort to pacify potential critics of the character's fairly reverent treatment throughout. Or it could just simply be true.
The action doesn't necessarily move at a breakneck pace and we aren't marveling at the editing as we would with Stone's classic 80's and 90's offerings. And while crisply photographed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, you'd be hard-pressed to find supporters championing it for a spot in the top tier of the director's best looking films. It speaks volumes that even Nicolas Cage's virtual cameo (as a U.S. Intelligence official) isn't crazy at all, perfectly serving its function like most of the other moving parts in the story. And that's completely fine. Stone trusts the extraordinary subject do most of the work, recounting events presumably as they happened with little space for editorializing.
Toward its third act, it fully evolves into this gripping thriller, culminating in a jarring transition that melds real life and movies in a way you've never quite seen before in a biopic, making you appreciate the lead performance that much more. Controversy isn't everything when it can be just as effective taking a logically straightforward approach to telling an exceptional story. With Snowden it rings especially true, as the scariest part of it all is just how flawed and relatable the protagonist is, offering up the very real possibility that anyone placed into similar circumstances are capable of making the choices he did.