Oliver Stone’s new movie “Snowden” is a return to form for the acclaimed director. It’s similar to his previous dramatized biographies, “W.” and “JFK,” but with the experimental elements of “Natural Born Killers” thrown in (jump-cuts, closeups so tight you can see every pore on the actors’ faces, use of archival footage and montages). The film begs people to look into the way their government works. It’s highly entertaining and familiar, once you remember that we are only 3 years removed from Edward Snowden’s exile to Russia.
“Snowden: Live,” a live-streamed Q&A hosted by Matt Zoller Seitz, helped analyze both the movie and the influence of Edward Snowden. Seitz was joined by Joseph Gordon Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Oliver Stone, and Edward Snowden himself (via livestream from Russia).
Stone decided to focus on this story because he wanted to show Snowden as a “human being.” This involved reading everything available on the subject and visiting Snowden’s home in Russia nine times. Snowden became more comfortable with him, eventually becoming willing to share his story.
Stone’s dedication to having the public know how technology is used to invade privacy is seen from the second the “turn off your cellphones” warning flashes on the screen. Stone filmed his own version of the warning, urging us to think about how the government tracks our phones; at the end of his warning he asks us to put our phones away, but to be vigilant. It’s tongue in cheek, and shows us the film’s message: we must question just how private our private lives are since the advent of technology.
The film’s biggest downfall is Stone’s near veneration of Snowden. Stone portrays his protagonist as an underdog and a hero, but it’s a very subjective image. Yes, Snowden is a whistleblower with good intentions, but he also stole information and cost people their jobs. This constant focus on Snowden as a hero comes at the cost of character development of other characters who might reveal more about the CIA and NSA’s illegal activities. However, the movie is full of enough strengths (the performances, creative montages and anxious mood) to make up for it.
“He was very present, and he was in the world as a very articulate very resolute young man at 29 years old, to do what he did,” says Stone about his film’s real-life protagonist. The respect is apparently mutual, with Snowden saying, “The thing that struck me about Oliver is how consumed he is by a project. He never stops thinking, even when he’s having a conversation with you. He doesn’t always make eye contact, because he’s lost in his mind in this pursuit of a vision… it’s a little bit infectious.”
The film focuses on Edward Snowden’s (Gordon-Levitt) life from 2004 to 2013, framed through the filming of Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour.” During that 10 year period, Snowden, a patriot drawn to civic service, is honorably discharged from the army after breaking his legs in boot camp, and joins the CIA and the NSA. He grows disillusioned with how the American government protects common citizens’ privacy and decides to steal confidential information and release it to Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) to be published. Rounding out the cast are Nicolas Cage (a campy conspiracy theorist CIA professor) and Rhys Ifans (a slightly sociopathic CIA professor in it for the prestige and money).
The Edward Snowden seen onscreen at the post film Q&A was relaxed, open and funny, poking fun at himself and giving privacy tips to the audience, not at all like the Snowden shown in the film. The onscreen Snowden is initially complacent and charming, but becomes increasingly defiant and withdrawn as the film goes on. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance was praised by the Snowden family. Gordon-Levitt stated, “When you play a real person and then their real mother and father come up, and and say thank you, and say ‘I saw my son and what he was doing, and I thank you for doing this,’[…] I’ve never experienced anything like that, as an actor.”
He is accompanied by longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Mills is treated as an afterthought with little character development; all we know is that she’s a photographer and occasional pole-dancing instructor. Woodley and Gordon-Levitt play the couple well; their major fight–shot in a dark Japanese apartment is filmed with a combination of angles and constant movement from both Gordon-Levitt and Woodley–is both dramatic and heartbreaking. The fight shows how Snowden’s love for his country is bigger than his wants and needs.
Snowden was open to showing the fight in the film because, “those things happen in every relationship, I think. Everybody struggles, particularly when you’re in tense situations. When you’re far from home, in a place we don’t speak the language, a lot of times we only have each other, but at the end of the day I’d say it’s not entirely unfair.”
The movie takes Snowden and Mills from Virginia to Geneva to Japan to Hawaii and finally China. The scenes start off, like Snowden’s attitude, light and colorful. The closer we get to Snowden’s plan to reveal the truth, the scenes become darker, tightly shot and more claustrophobic, as the protagonist’s own personality is becoming more paranoid.
The best part about Stone’s film is the way it explains the information economy, hacking, and the way the government uses and takes whatever information it wants, with little to no repercussions. In a particularly interesting CGI sequence, information is traded from country to country via neon lines, which become the silhouette of an eye, and later Snowden’s own eye. It is heavy “Big Brother is everywhere” symbolism, but visually stunning. All in all “Snowden,” is a textbook Oliver Stone film which both entertains and makes you think, or at the very least, inspires you to use a Band-Aid to cover your laptop camera.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Photo Credit: Open Road Films