CIA, Drama, Eavesdropping, Edward Snowden, Hong Kong, Joseph-Gordon-Levitt, Laura Poitras, Melissa Leo, NSA, Oliver Stone, Review, Rhys Ifans, Shailene Woodley, Thriller, Tom Wilkinson, True story, Whistleblower, Zachary Quinto
D: Oliver Stone / 134m
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, Scott Eastwood, Lakeith Stanfield, Logan Marshall-Green, Ben Chaplin, Nicolas Cage
By now, most of us have heard of Edward Joseph Snowden (Gordon-Levitt), the NSA whistleblower who revealed the extent of the US’s surveillance programme both at home and abroad. In June 2013, Snowden flew to Hong Kong to meet with documentary movie maker Laura Poitras (Leo), and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Wilkinson). There, at the Hotel Mira, Snowden explained his reasons for disclosing the documents he appropriated from NSA data banks, and why he felt that the extent of the US’s “eavesdropping” was both inappropriate and damaging to the integrity of the US and its intelligence-gathering agencies. Following the publication of the files Snowden provided, he was charged with offences under the 1917 Espionage Act*, and though he tried to reach South America via Russia and Cuba, his passport was revoked while he was en route to Russia, and he was forced to remain in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. And Moscow – though not the airport – has been his home ever since.
Snowden’s story is one that seems tailor-made for an Oliver Stone movie. Anyone who’s seen his documentary series The Untold History of the United States (2012-13), or read the accompanying book, will know that Stone is largely unimpressed with the way in which his country has become a land run by self-serving neo-conservatives for whom “by any means necessary” is a proud motto. And while you could argue that this has been the status quo in America for a lot longer than the last fifty years, what is without doubt is the extent to which the intelligence agencies have abused their remits post-911 to eavesdrop not just on suspected terrorists but everyone. But with all this now out in the open, and Snowden’s place in history assured – and already explored in Laura Poitras’s excellent, Oscar-winning documentary CITIZENFOUR (2014) – what is there left for Stone to bring to the screen that hasn’t already been explored? Unfortunately, the answer is not much.
Watching Snowden is a somewhat dispiriting experience. Stone does what he does best over two and a quarter hours: exposing the clandestine activities of several branches of the US government, highlighting the insidious effects these activities are having on an individual’s human rights, and revealing how those same human rights aren’t even protected by the courts (who seem to be bypassed at every opportunity). But Stone’s usual passion and sense of outrage seems to be muted here. This is like watching a movie made by someone who’s intellectually aggrieved by what the NSA has been up to, but doesn’t quite feel the need to get emotional about it as well. This is Oliver Stone in restrained, almost reflective mode – and it doesn’t feel right.
What all this means is that Snowden feels like objective reportage for much of its running time, with scenes placed and set up to impart relevant information, allowing Stone and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald to give audiences all they need to know about Snowden himself and the secret world he was a part of. But it’s this matter-of-fact way in which Stone has decided to present both the man and that world that curtails any tension, and thereby lessens the drama. The scene where Snowden downloads a mass of files right from the heart of the NSA’s base in Hawaii, a scene that many directors could have made into a nerve-shredding exercise in trepidation and anxiety, lacks all those elements and plays out with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Watching as Snowden becomes increasingly aware of the extent of his country’s malfeasance – and the ways in which he’s unwittingly contributed to that malfeasance – Stone shows Snowden’s baffled disbelief, and his somewhat naïve demeanour, but there’s a distance between the viewer and the beleaguered whistleblower that stops any real sympathy or connection from forming. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes about the process of making Snowden’s initial commitment to the NSA appear noble and necessary, he can’t quite overcome a lack of personality that keeps the man from registering as more than a name most people will recognise, but few outside the US will truly care about. This is partly due to the script, which, instead of showing the man behind the name through his commitment to the truth, attempts to do so through his relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Woodley). Would that these scenes had more of an impact, but there’s a pedantic, going-through-the-motions feel to them that Stone can’t quite shake off. There are times where they also border on soap opera, as Mills’s frustration with Snowden’s work leads to several moments where she invokes the whole “it’s me or the job” ultimatum.
Elsewhere, the movie plods along, only occasionally engaging with the material in a way that appears earnest or committed, but doing enough to keep interested viewers interested, while not doing enough to keep viewers new to Snowden’s story on board for the duration. It’s not that Stone is doing anything particularly wrong – he still has a strong visual sense (bolstered by crisp, insistent cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle), and the movie is expertly edited by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy – but somewhere along the way, any sense of urgency about the subject and its ramifications seems to have been lost. Perhaps it’s due to the time that’s passed since Snowden blew the whistle; in today’s need-to-know-now society is his story relevant anymore?
There are good performances all round, but mostly amongst the supporting turns, with Ifans a standout as Snowden’s mentor and über-spook Corbin O’Brien. Its also good to see Nicolas Cage, albeit in a minor role, deliver the kind of performance that we know he’s capable of. Spare a thought though for the trio of Leo, Quinto and Wilkinson, stranded in a hotel room in Hong Kong and not really given much to do except listen and look amazed/appalled/astounded as appropriate (it makes the scene where Greenwald barks orders at his editor (Richardson) all the more striking – and out of place). Woodley is hamstrung by a role that requires her to be unsupportive and selfish for the most part, and which is left hanging by a script that doesn’t explain why she’s now living with Snowden in Moscow. And as Snowden, Gordon-Levitt gives a diffident, constrained portrayal of a man who made a momentous personal and professional decision, and the actor carries the gravitas of that with aplomb. If only he didn’t sound like Keanu Reeves…
Rating: 6/10 – Stone adds another American life to his list of movie subjects, but in doing so seems more like a director for hire than the tirelessly challenging agent provocateur he usually is; what hampers Snowden is a sense that its story is no longer important, and that the movie is aware of this, which stops it from being the impassioned, thought-provoking movie it should be.
*The 1917 Espionage Act is a particularly apt (and predictable) piece of legislation for Snowden to be charged under. Such is the loose nature of the Act, if Snowden were to return to the US and be put on trial, he wouldn’t be able to use any information relating to the offence as evidence that he wasn’t guilty; because of the nature of the information he released, it would still be regarded as classified and therefore not admissible, and the jury wouldn’t be privy to it. And that’s without the cost of the defense itself: anywhere between $1 million and $3 million.