Four stars. Rated R, for brief nudity and frequent profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.16.16
Oliver Stone’s films have polarized viewers for three decades — ever since 1986’s Platoon — and this one won’t be any different.
Indeed, it’s difficult to find a recent public figure who has divided opinion as much as Edward Snowden (although a current presidential candidate comes close).
Stone’s dip into these tempestuous waters — he also co-wrote the script, with Kieran Fitzgerald, based on material gathered from books by Luke Harding and Anatoly Kucherena — isn’t likely to change any minds. Neither will this film’s slant surprise anybody familiar with Stone’s über-liberal proclivities. No question: This is a sympathetic, strawberry-lensed portrait of — depending on your point of view — one of our country’s most heinous traitors, or one of its most conscientious whistle-blowers.
The issue itself also frustrates fence-sitters. Civil liberties types, with a healthy respect for George Orwell, fear the totalitarian potential of an unchecked government Big Brother. Those favoring security — at any cost — argue that such a position is naïve, at a time when headlines are dominated by the grotesque behavior of terrorists who operate outside of national boundaries.
In fairness, Stone’s film carefully takes no position in that particular argument. The primary goal of any mainstream drama, even one drawn from actual events, is to give a (hopefully) talented cast the opportunity to inhabit engaging characters involved in a compelling storyline.
In this respect, Snowden succeeds, in great part because of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s thoroughly convincing portrayal of the title character. Viewers exiting the theater may not agree with Snowden’s actions, but the emotional and philosophical journey that gets him there is presented thoughtfully and persuasively (assuming, of course, that we accept Harding and Kucherena’s vision of the man).
Thematically, this film echoes Stone’s depiction of Ron Kovic, in 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. In both cases, we’re introduced to young, true-blue American patriots — believers in baseball, motherhood and apple pie — who shed their idealism slowly, reluctantly, but then completely ... and only after coming to the conclusion that People In Authority have lied to them, and to everybody, for too long.
Stone opens his film in a plush Hong Kong hotel in the spring of 2013, as Snowden takes his first meeting with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto); they’re soon joined by the Guardian’s defense and intelligence correspondent, Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). They’ve assembled to help Snowden “finesse” the disclosure of his stolen classified documents, in a very public manner that will prevent the U.S. government from spinning the revelations into something insignificant.
And, not incidentally, to minimize the chances that Snowden might get kidnapped and/or killed.
(Poitras actually preceded this film by two years; her 2014 documentary on Snowden, Citizenfour, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, along with a slew of other national and international honors.)
Snowden’s recitation of events, over the course of many clandestine hotel meetings — with all cell phones tossed into the room’s microwave, to shield monitoring; and pillows stuffed against the door, to prevent casual eavesdropping — becomes the framing device for the subsequent lengthy flashbacks.
Those unfamiliar with Snowden’s earlier life are likely to be surprised by the initial hop, to 2004, which finds the young man — a devoted conservative — as a Special Forces enlistee in the U.S. Army Reserve, a decision consistent with his family’s history of service in the federal government. But Snowden lacks the physique for such ambition, and a serious training accident prompts another path — with the CIA — that better exploits his instinctive and impressive cyber-security skills.
At roughly this point, he meets Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a budding photographer and performance artist destined to become his soul mate. She’s an unapologetic bleeding-heart liberal, and they tease each other over their divergent political views. The chemistry is palpable, Woodley’s playful handling of the gregarious, free-spirited Mills an intriguing contrast to Gordon-Levitt’s shy, quietly intense Snowden.
Subsequent events happen quickly, and Stone deserves credit for cleverly presenting the (at times) quite complex tech talk that exemplifies Snowden’s work. The results are easy to comprehend, as are the intrusive personal freedom issues that crop up almost immediately.
Stone also offers an intriguing thought, when Snowden’s eventual CIA mentor — Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans, playing a fictitious character clearly named after the villain in Orwell’s 1984) — accepts this young recruit, despite less than acceptable application results, because the “extraordinary” times demand his skill set. Given the cowboy mentality demonstrated by some of Snowden’s eventual, equally young colleagues, we can’t help wondering if the CIA, NSA and related alphabet agencies may have relaxed their standards too much.
In that context, was an Edward Snowden inevitable ... and their own fault?
As the years pass, Snowden’s belief in the necessity of his work is shaped by a variety of colorful figures: Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage, playing another fictitious character), a sidelined computer savant “demoted” to teaching CIA recruits; Matt Kovar (Timothy Olyphant), a Geneva-based CIA agent whose cold-hearted, dirty-tricks behavior with a potential asset prove repulsive; and Gabriel Sol (Ben Schnetzer), a fellow NSA hacker who reveals the jaw-dropping reach of secret U.S. government surveillance, and laughingly refers to his naïve new colleague as “Snow White.”
But Ifans’ highly placed O’Brian is the chilling spider at the heart of this web. It’s a fascinating shift for an actor initially best known for larkish supporting roles in crowd-pleasing rom-coms such as Notting Hill and Pirate Radio (not to mention his fan-cred appearance as Harry Potter’s Xenophilius Lovegood). But, as with many comedic actors before him, those same skills make him a memorable figure of restrained malevolence.
In a word, O’Brian is scary. His sponsorship of Snowden feels genuine — and the younger man eagerly drinks that Kool-Aid — but there’s something in Ifans’ eyes that screams danger. The same gullibility that prompted the “Snow White” moniker also blinds Snowden to what lies behind O’Brian’s bland smile.
Stone obviously recognized the power of Ifans’ performance, choosing to heighten it with a gigantic, face-directly-in-front-of-the-monitor close-up during a teleconference between O’Brian and Snowden, late in the story. One cannot help but shiver.
But Gordon-Levitt owns the film, as well he should, being present in almost every scene. There’s a slight affectation to his voice — briefly bothersome, until we settle into it — but otherwise he nails Snowden’s childlike earnestness, and that aha! flash of inspiration that seasoned computer nerds will recognize.
More crucially, we see the shift in Gordon-Levitt’s gaze and posture, as the scales fall from Snowden’s eyes ... at which point he becomes furtive and wary, like a hunted animal. (As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get out.)
Woodley isn’t quite as persuasive, despite the meet-cute charm of her early scenes. She looks awkward trying to inhabit this young woman’s goofier, giddier nature (pole-dancing?), and Mills’ more serious confrontations with Snowden lack credibility. The actors make it easy to see why these two characters fall in love, but we find it increasingly hard to believe why they remain in love.
Quinto is appropriately passionate as an excited journalist sitting atop the white-hot exposé of the century, and he has a particularly ferocious exchange with Janine Gibson (Joely Richardson), editor of The Guardian’s New York-based online branch.
Stone’s control of tone is assured and consistent, although he “conveniently” omits known details that call Snowden’s altruistic motives into question. One quick scene also feels completely wrong: When Snowden successfully smuggles the surveillance data out of the NSA’s Hawaiian regional operations center, where he has worked for 15 months — and his means of foiling the obligatory employee exit scan seems unlikely — he casually walks a few score yards out of the complex ... and then, in tight close-up, bursts into an ear-splitting grin (one of very few in the entire film).
Too smug. Not at all the reaction we’d expect, from the man we’ve gotten to know so well, by this point.
(Contrary to what the film depicts, Snowden spent quite awhile accumulating his trove of classified data: not one quick afternoon.)
So, OK, this isn’t a documentary; these dramatic sleights-of-truth don’t diminish the overall film. On top of which, we can’t deny the impact of Stone’s final scene, as his protagonist is interviewed via Internet for a packed lecture hall ... and a smooth camera pan unexpectedly shifts from Gordon-Levitt, answering questions, to Snowden himself, doing the same. It’s a powerful moment.
The behind-the-scenes work is top-notch, with production designer Mark Tildesley’s visions of CIA and NSA computer surveillance centers looking both high-tech and occasionally kludgy. Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters heighten the growing tension with a subtle — but always effective — orchestral underscore.
Poitras’ Citizenfour undoubtedly gives a more candid depiction of Snowden circa 2013, but her film — as with most documentaries — has a clinical, academic tone (and Lindsay is entirely absent). It’s easier to fall into the spirit of Stone’s film, which does a better job of trying to address Snowden’s emotional and psychological complexities.
Whether that mission proves successful — since Stone clearly sympathizes with his subject — remains to be seen. That said, the newspaper headlines and newsreel footage unspooling behind the closing credits clearly suggest that the rest of the world already hails Snowden as heroic.
Easy for them. It wasn’t their covert data that got leaked.