Snowden (2016)

One nation under surveillance for liberty and justice for all.

It’s official. Snowden marks the second time that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has headlined a movie adaptation of a superior documentary, the first being Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk (2015), a Hollywood re-telling of James Marsh’s 2008 indie-doco, Man on Wire. To be fair, this isn’t really Gordon-Levitt’s fault (although I suggest he have a word with his agent) as Snowden does sound decent in theory, the new film making for an interesting companion piece to Laura Poitras’ Academy Award-winning Citizenfour (2014), and chiefly focuses on whistleblower Edward Snowden’s earlier years and his work in the national security, before exposing the NSA’s surveillance practices to the world. As a narrative-thriller however, Snowden is fraught with several setbacks — but more on that later.

Full Metal Whistleblower
Full Metal Whistleblower

Directed by three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone, JFK (1991), the heavily dramatized Snowden opens in 2013 and uses the infamous Hong Kong hotel room as a framing device, with investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), The Guardian intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Citizenfour filmmaker Laura Poitras (played by Melissa Leo here), interviewing Edward Snowden about his life and background in a covert setting, all of this leading up to the gripping events of the said doco.

Via flashbacks we see Snowden’s military past and his dreams of working in the Special Forces — both his enlistment and eventual discharge — his career in the CIA, and later NSA, and his subsequent disillusionment with the cyber surveillance system that he and his colleagues were dabbling in, mainly after learning that the government had been keeping tabs on everybody, not just those suspected of terrorism. We’re also given some insight into Edward’s relationship with artist and acrobat Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), whose liberal ideals grated against his more conservative views — but as the saying goes, opposites attract!

Throughout the film, director Stone spends large portions of time playing up the paranoia angle, only to have this sputter by the time the third act hits. Our protagonist encounters an array of sleazy co-workers while on his journey, guys who get their kicks out of spying on others, with CIA Agent Geneva (Timothy Olyphant) being the most memorable. We’re also introduced to the jaded Hank Forrester, played by Nicolas Cage, World Trade Center (2006), who was sidelined into education after expressing his growing concerns about surveillance to the higher-ups some time ago, the usually kooky Cage delivering a rather subdued act.

Team Edward
Team Edward

But therein lies the problem. When you’re talking about Hollywood spy fare — think the Bourne films (2002 – 2016) — the term ‘you’re being watched’ generally comes hand-in-hand with the territory. Therefore, eventually finding out that the government has ‘eyes on us’ doesn’t really come as much of a surprise or evoke the same level of disbelief here as it would in Poitras’ Citizenfour. Hence, with Stone clearly drawing a lot of inspiration from Mission: Impossible type flicks, the ‘big shock’ kinda flounders. Furthermore, a sequence where Snowden steals data evidence of eagle eye programs on a memory card hidden inside of a Rubik’s Cube, only reinforces my suspicion that very little of Snowden’s actual story made it to screen. Anyhow, what we’re left with is a whole bunch of rushed back-story on Snowden’s history, which Stone seems to have added out of sheer obligation and nothing else, the filmmaker all too eager to get back to the exaggerated (and kinda useless) spying webcams and government hypocrisy stuff.

The script, co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, The Homesman (2014), which is based on the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena, avoids addressing tough questions concerning Edward Snowden’s somewhat traitorous actions, particularly the careless manner in which he exposed the government’s illegal and immoral dealings, then fled the country, reluctant to accept any punishment for his disclosures, the film simply painting him as a hero and nothing else. In what’s meant to be a powerful final reveal, the flick’s finale gives way to idol worship, failing to explore the whole Snowden debate in an even-handed way.

'It's standard procedure now after a sick day. Tell me ... what were your symptoms?'
‘It’s standard procedure now after a sick day. Tell me … what were your symptoms?’

Look, it’s not all middling as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Looper (2012), gives a first-rate performance as Mr. Snowden, his strained vocal work painting an accurate picture of the titular subject. Even Shailene Woodley, The Descendants (2011), who doesn’t really have much to do, delivers a multilayered rendering of Edward’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, even if the couple generate as much on-screen sparks as a firecracker going off underwater, Gordon-Levitt clearly a decade or so older than his romantic co-star. Rhys Ifans, Mr. Nobody (2009), isn’t bad as intelligence honcho Corbin O’Brian either, a CIA bigwig who sees early promise in the young hacker-geek, eventually taking him under his wing. Alas, Ifans’ latter scenes — one in particular, which sees his irritated face pop up on a room-sized conference monitor — turn the authoritarian figure into something of a Bond villain caricature.

While Oliver Stone’s Snowden is sure to re-ignite dialogue about the morals and ethics of our subject’s questionable actions (and even surveillance itself), the whole thing lacks impact and plays it too aesthetically safe to pack any sort of lasting punch. One of the film’s taglines reads ‘hero or traitor?’ — but come on guys, why bother asking the question if your movie’s metaphorical head is shoved so far up the dude’s butt!

2.5 / 5 – Alright

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Snowden is released through Buena Vista Australia & New Zealand