In 2013, while holed up in Hong Kong hotel room, NSA contractor/ CIA analyst/computer extraordinaire Edward Snowden gave classified government documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras filming in the background. These documents showed that the NSA had been (still is?) monitoring the activity of US citizens (along with people from around the world) through cell phone calls, text messages, emails, credit cards, social media websites etc.
Oliver Stone’s biographical drama/thriller “Snowden” paints the thirty three year old as a hero for risking his reputation to bring all this to light, while at the same time painting the government as sneaky menacing villains violating the privacy of millions of people—exorcising economic and social control. It’s as simple as that. And that’s the problem with the film.
“Snowden” is a flashy yet utterly bland biographical film (and a thriller free of suspense) that adds nothing to the Snowden/ mass surveillance conversation. It boringly summarizes Snowden’s life without providing any new insights on his life; you would have been better off staying home and reading his Wikipedia article. Scene after scene, the picture hammers home the same obvious, heavy-handed point (Snowden good. Government bad). This isn’t particularly surprising. As a filmmaker Stone has a tendency to be heavy handed and in your face, even in his great films (“Platoon,” “Wall Street”). While not as overwrought and inelegant as “Born on the Fourth of July” (I still can’t believe he won Best Director) there’s little in the way of nuance in this latest outing.
During one scene, as Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) proudly walks out of a top-secret base with secret files in hand, bright sunlight shines over his smiling face. This is followed by a slow motion silhouette shot from behind showing him walk off into blinding, almost divine white light. In multiple scenes, we can see an “I support online rights” sticker on his laptop. Are you kidding me? Meanwhile, Corbin O’ Brian, (Rhys Ifans) a high-ranking CIA official and one of Snowden’s mentors is essentially treated as a one dimensional, cartoon villain. In his penultimate scene he talks to Snowden via video call on a gigantic screen in a conference room—his head and torso towering over Snowden’s puny body. It’s like a sequence out of a second rate Bond flick. “Snowden” is a film made by a director who has his mind made up about his subject; there’s no room for debate or grey area.
The screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald (based on the book by Luke Harding and Anatoly Kucherna) is bloated, trying to cram roughly eight years of events into a little over two hours. We see Snowden as a plucky, awkward conservative eagerly wanting to serve his country gradually turn into the disillusioned fugitive he is now. All of this is told through the uninspired “protagonist-recounts-his-story-via-flashback” framing device. In fact there are large chunks where Snowden is simply narrating events in his life (or explaining various programs that the government used for surveillance purposes) over slick montages and info graphics. It’s as thrilling as a decently made Prezi.
At the very least it would have been better had Stone and company picked one chapter in Snowden’s life and zeroed in. There could have been a tight, tense little thriller that focused solely on Snowden’s interactions with the journalists in 2013 and his subsequent escape to Russia (instead that section is stuffed into the last five to ten minutes). Did we really need to see early sequences of Snowden aspiring to be a Special Forces solider in training camp? Or a sequence of Snowden trying to download the top-secret files, worryingly looking around, while dramatic techno music blares over the soundtrack?
From a filmmaking perspective, Snowden is slick, stylish and kind of obnoxious in how hard it tries to make its situations super intense and thrilling. There are a lot of wobbling, crooked close-ups on security cameras, lap top cams and Snowden’s paranoid face looking around. Scenes of characters conversing that are photographed from afar. You know…because they’re watching us! All the time!! In addition we get shots that take us INSIDE computers and high tech databases. Note to filmmakers who want to make cyber thrillers: this type of sequence was ineffective in “Blackhat” and it’s ineffective here. What are we supposed to gain by seeing a CGI’d interior of a computer? Visually, the film becomes more disorienting and ham-fisted as it goes along.
Watching “Snowden” it’s as though Stone is sitting next to you slapping you in the face, constantly whispering in your ear to pay attention like the film is revealing something new and profound and doing so subtly. At the end he lays the didacticism on thick, moving from slapping to repeatedly pummeling you. The film left me feeling beaten down and frustrated.
It’s all a shame because the cast is top notch. Levitt gives a solid performance, capturing Snowden’s nervous and awkward mannerisms (and robotic voice) quite nicely, while Shailene Woodley is down to earth and appealing as Snowden’s long time girlfriend Lindsay Mills. But they’re wasted. Everybody is wasted in this superfluous picture. If you want to see a far superior Snowden thriller, watch Poitras’ Oscar winning documentary “Citizen Four.”
Although, if you want to see an insipid dramatization of how that documentary came into fruition, look no further than “Snowden.”