Review: Snowden

The movie I saw and chose to feature this week is a film that sought to chronicle the rise of the man who is now considered one of the most controversial figures in the world. He has been branded and labeled many things since 2013 but director Oliver Stone simply dubs him and this film as Snowden.

By now the world should have a firm idea who Edward Joseph Snowden is and what he has done since stepping forward and revealing the truth about the NSA’s reach to gather intelligence but Snowden the film chronicles the events that led up to the exposure of both him and the NSA’s secrets from 2004 to 2013; his fall from serving in the military, his rise in the CIA, his shift to the NSA, his contributions as a contractor for the intelligence community, the effect of his work on his health and his relationship with Lindsay Mills, everything that led to his sit-down with the embattled documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, and journalists Ewan MacAskill and Glenn Greenwald, a sit-down which yielded an Oscar winning documentary.

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Image by Open Road Films

While watching Snowden, I was held by the film’s methodical step-by-step progression to lead this film to where it ultimately ended which is the present and I could see the appeal to director Oliver Stone who is a filmmaker driven by truth but I found myself wondering, why make this movie when Citizenfour is already out there?

Perhaps Stone and screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald sought to give Edward Snowden another chance to be judged in the court of public opinion since so many Americans have already made up their minds about him? Perhaps they wanted to humanize Snowden and foster sympathy for him because in the film, he is a man beleaguered by sacrifice and driven to do something bigger than just himself?

The reasons behind this film are many just as there are many reasons as to why Snowden blasted the NSA’s secrets out into the open but I can say that Snowden remarkably naïve to the point of biased perhaps in the sense that it goes so out of its way to make Snowden heroic it wastes no opportunity condemning the government and the intelligence community every chance it has. It doesn’t take long to realize that it is so one-sided, you have no choice but to elicit sympathy for Edward Snowden whether you have an opinion about him or not.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt did his utmost by the title character and while his performance isn’t exactly Oscar caliber, his effort to pass himself as Edward Snowden is noteworthy and the rest of the supporting cast is in the same boat. Shailene Woodley as the clichéd housewife girlfriend Lindsay Mills who suffers yet soldiers on at home while her man is out “fighting the good fight”, Melissa Leo as the seldom screened Laura Poitras, Rhys Ifans as creepy intelligence instructor Corbin O’Brian, Zachary Quinto as the rather wooden Glenn Greenwald, in addition to Tom Wilkenson, Nicholas Cage, Scott Eastwood, the entire cast and their contributions, if any, are subverted to Stone’s cause.

There are some technical aspects to this film that are worth mentioning. For instance, the cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle is exceptionally good. Perhaps the best moment of the film was when Snowden and Corbin had a video conference and Corbin was essentially questioning Snowden’s loyalty and Corbin pulls his laptop towards him in a forceful manner to make a point, while the camera behind Gordon-Levitt stayed fixed. That was a compelling moment.

The editing by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy is adequate, Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters’ music is decent, the production design, costumes, art-direction all unremarkable since the events of this film took place rather recently so it isn’t much of a stretch to go all out on authenticity.

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By Towpilot (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

To me, I believe I know why Oliver Stone was attracted to make this film but again I ask, what is the purpose of Snowden? It is unclear if he wanted to change minds about Snowden, to slight, embarrass and blame the U.S. government for Snowden’s actions as a whistleblower, to shed light on who else shaped Snowden’s path to snitching? It’s unclear but the reasons are layered and diverse and I honestly couldn’t find a reason to genuinely like or dislike this film.

My opinion on Edward Snowden is irrelevant but perhaps because I have an opinion on Snowden the reason I have such an ambiguous perspective on Snowden. I encourage viewers to watch CitizenFour to learn the story of the whistleblowing rather than seeing Snowden, which is practically the story about the man behind the whistleblowing; CitizenFour is by far more compelling than this shallow retelling.

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