Monday, September 19, 2016

A Reel Review: SNOWDEN

There is little doubt that Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the NSA who leaked thousands of classified documents to the media and world, is one of the most controversial figures in our recent history. The debate over his status as a hero, patriot, whistle-blower, or traitor rages on, which makes the telling of his life story a tricky task. But the solution to the task is simple; just hire a director who has chosen a side and doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. Enter Oliver Stone.

Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), steals thousands of classified documents from the NSA, and meets with three journalists (played by Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, and Tom Wilkinson), in a secret location to release the data and to get his story on tape; a story which includes his rise through the ranks in government security by way of his mentors (played by Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage), and the stresses on his personal life and relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley).

SNOWDEN sets itself up as a fascinating character-study; specifically, how one’s core-beliefs can be torn down. Snowden the character starts off as a patriotic conservative who just wants to serve his country and is quick to defend government policy. His turn to the opposite side is a slow one, and happens over several stages of his career which takes him all over the world. At each new location and job assignment, there’s an incident or two which begins to change his core, and eventually act as a stressor with his personal life with Lindsay. When director Oliver Stone keeps the focus on Snowden and his struggle with the actions of his own government, SNOWDEN is a fascinating film.

Snowden’s actions, which broke the law to reveal other crimes, has divided the world on his status as a hero or a traitor, and Oliver Stone makes it very clear which side he has chosen. A filmmaker choosing a side isn’t a terrible thing, but Stone does so much biased hero-worshipping in SNOWDEN that it hurts the film. Stone uses the Snowden character as his own mouthpiece to let us know his thoughts on the current state of the U.S. government and the issue of security vs. freedoms. Supporting characters go out of their way to clap Snowden on the back and endlessly thank him, and Stone even finds a way to give him a standing ovation near the end of the film. It’s often a distraction, as the movie stops dead in its tracks one too many times for all this soap-boxing to happen. Stone’s admiration for the man leads him to actually replacing Joseph Gordon-Levitt with the real Snowden himself towards the end of the film in a bizarre and jarring move.

Acting is excellent all around. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fascinating as Snowden, giving us a calm demeanor on the outside with hints of the inner struggle. His chemistry with Shailene Woodley is fantastic and really drives the film. Woodley gives the best performance of her career as someone who is stuck in a troubling situation but chooses to stay out of love. Nicolas Cage pops in as one of Snowden’s mentors and makes an impression, and even manages to poke fun at himself here and there.

The most frustrating part about SNOWDEN is that since the real story is far from over, the film leaves us hanging at the end, which means it doesn’t have much of a shelf-life. An inevitable followup/sequel in 20 years could be interesting. That followup would be wise to learn from the mistakes of SNOWDEN, as the preaching gets in the way of the storytelling one too many times. For a biopic it is Stone’s most personal film as no questions are raised but plenty of answers are given. His answers and not much else.


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