Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quino, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Ben Schnetzer, Ben Chaplin, Logan Marshall Green, Joely Richardson.
Dual Oscar winning filmmaker Oliver Stone is a polarising figure with a strong political conscience whose films often shake up the establishment. His films have often explored themes of power and corruption and complex issues about American values in the modern world. He has explored some of the darker secrets of US history and been deeply critical of the US government and subsequent administrations. His Oscar winning Platoon was a deeply personal and highly critical look at the Vietnam war and the impact it had on the soldiers fighting the unpopular and unwinnable war; JFK explored the assassination of Kennedy and some of the various conspiracy theories; while Wall Street tackled corporate greed two decades before the GFC; and his biopics of former US Presidents like Nixon and George W Bush were quite revealing.
In his latest film, Stone turns his gaze on whistleblower Edward Snowden (played here by Joseph Gordon Levitt), a former NSA and CIA analyst released thousands of documents revealing that the US government was running a widespread surveillance program on people, spying on their phone calls as well as email correspondence, under the guise of fighting the war on terror. The film is based on two nonfiction books written about Snowden – The Snowden Files: The Inside Story Of The World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding, and Time Of The Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena. The film asks potent questions about how much of our liberties are we willing to give up in the name of security.
In 2013 Snowden unleashed a blizzard of data in the presence of filmmaker Laura Poitras and two journalists while holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room. Many hailed Snowden as a hero for his actions, while others reviled him as a traitor who breached US security. Facing arrest if he ever sets foot on US territory Snowden currently resides in Moscow. A couple of years ago we saw the documentary Citizenfour from filmmaker Laura Poitras, which captured the historic moment, and also looked at the aftermath of his actions.
Snowden opens with that moment in time as Poitras (played here by Oscar winner Melissa Leo) and the two journalists (played by Star Trek‘s Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson) watch on and report on the US’s surveillance capabilities. Snowden makes for a fine companion piece to Poitras’s Oscar winning 2014 feature length documentary Citizenfour. That film had a greater sense of urgency and gave us much more insight into Snowden’s disillusionment with the government and its secrets and the reasons behind his actions, while this film is a straight forward biopic that gives us more information about the man himself and charts his journey from earnest patriot to troubled whistleblower.
In a series of extended flashbacks we then get Snowden’s backstory and the events that led to his disillusionment with his government’s mostly illegal activities. We learn how he joined the military out of a patriotic desire to defend his country, but how an accident put paid to that career and led to his discharge. He then joined the CIA where his abilities with computers attracted the attention of spymaster Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who then sent him to various CIA facilities around the world to use him to establish elaborate systems and maintain network security. He is sent to Geneva, Tokyo, and even Hawaii, where he has misgivings about the US’s spying capabilities.
The film also loks at his relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a girl he met through an online dating service, and who remained loyal to him while he set about exposing secrets. However, even though it explores the ups and downs of this complicated relationship, this romantic subplot is probably the weakest element of the film.
Technically the film is well constructed, with impressive sets and graphics and attention to detail, although Stone struggles to make the scenes of computer programming and hacking very cinematic or suspenseful.
Levitt is a fine actor, who has virtually grown up on screen, from early roles in Angels In The Outfield and 10 Things I Hate About You to the popular sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun through to Mysterious Skin, (500) Days Of Summer, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Walk he has consistently delivered great performances. With the glasses and affectations Levitt does manage to bear a passing resemblance to the real Snowden, but this is a rather understated and softly spoken performance that captures the character’s essence.
For Woodley her role here as the love interest is a fairly thankless role, a far cry from her strong work as the kick-ass action heroine of the Divergent series, but she brings an emotional strength and strong moral fibre to her performance. But there is little real chemistry between her and Levitt, and many of these scenes lack passion and fall flat.
Stone has assembled a strong supporting cast that includes Timothy Olyphant (from tv series Justified, etc), Scott Eastwood, Ben Schnetzer, Ben Chaplin, Logan Marshall Green and Joely Richardson in small but key roles. Nicolas Cage dials back his usual mannerisms and manic tics to deliver a more straightforward characterisation as Hank Forrester, a frustrated programmer who becomes Snowden’s de facto mentor at the CIA training facility. Ifans is solid and a little creepy as the manipulative spymaster O’Brian.
Snowden is a fairly straightforward biopic that covers the period from 2004-2013. It is obvious that Stone admires Snowden and his actions, and this is not an objective biography. It tries to tell Snowden’s story from his perspective. But the film itself seems to lack Stone’s usual fire and aggressive style that have been the hallmarks of his best films. He manages to infuse the film with a modicum of suspense during those scenes set in Hong Kong, while a strong sense of paranoia also permeates the material. The real Snowden appears briefly at the end of the film which would seem to suggest that he endorses Stone’s vision.