Monday, September 12, 2016

Snowden: Movie Review

A dramatization of Edward Snowden and the interesting man he became.
Snowden is a compelling film because Edward Snowden is a compelling person. But it’s still an odd choice for a bio-pic since he had one moment of intense significance, the rest of his life was just little things that add up to the man currently hiding out in Russia. The film cuts back and forth between his 2013 meetings with documentarian Laura Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, and a more chronological telling of his life starting in 2004. 2016

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Screenplay by: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley

I was hoping for more of a companion piece to Laura Poitras’s 2014 documentary Citizenfour, something to highlight how he got to the big moment when he decided to leak classified NSA documents which prove illegal government-run surveillance programs. And while it can serve that purpose, it’s pretty clear that this is intended for a more mainstream audience. The film has been advertised as a dramatization of real events. And that’s an accurate word to use. It’s not overly Hollywood-ized, but it is overly dramatized. Linking his development of epilepsy to boiling water with the entire room filling with steam, or a meeting with his boss where his face fills the entire theater screen, zooming in on Snowden’s eyeball when he’s figuring something out, and tracking of data involves lots of colours and lots of flashing across the screen. I guess they need something to make the life of a quiet computer programmer a little more exciting.

Star Joseph Gordon-Levitt does put on a few mannerisms and a strange voice in his portrayal of Snowden, but he does look like him, even sounds like him a bit, and it’s not a stretch to believe that that’s what Snowden was like.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley as Edward Snowden
and Lindsay Mills in SNOWDEN. Courtesy of Elevation Pictures.
The main secondary character is Snowden’s long-time girlfriend Lindsay Mills (played by Shailene Woodley). One of the main purposes of the film is what drives Snowden to make the decision that he did, and the filmmakers are convinced that his relationship with Lindsay is the main driving force. I’m not entirely convinced that’s accurate. In Snowden’s own words in Citizenfour, he was clearly shaken up the most by leaving his family behind, Lindsay is only one piece of that. This is a man driven by more than just one relationship.

The film did include most of the important things to Snowden – that he didn’t want personal data revealed, that it needed to come from respected journalists, that the word, but most importantly the government and the NSA, knew it was him so that nobody else’s lives were harmed, and the fact that he knew what laws he was breaking.

It’s a complex issue one where people can reasonably be on either side, but it should be noted that Oliver Stone did not portray that. This is a film where the government is evil and Edward Snowden is a hero who might have just saved the citizens from their own country. They also unfortunately downplay the opposition. Ed is trying to warn Lindsay of the surveillance without revealing anything, but she dismisses it because she has nothing to hide. Her boobs are just not a concern to national security. They dismiss her point-of-view without even a well-constructed argument. She’s just wrong because. And most of us don’t think sentences should end with the word “because”.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ben Schnetzer in SNOWDEN.
Courtesy of Elevation Pictures.
Some of the more complex issues that I think they did handle well were Snowden’s co-workers at the CIA and NSA. People who hadn’t necessarily given a lot of thought to the laws they were breaking at the command of the government and the pressures of their job, but here comes Ed who isn’t willing to let it go so easily. The best co-worker was Ben Schnetzer as Gabriel, who Snowden works with twice. He’s not overly concerned with clearance or security and calls Ed “Snow White” and laughs off his innocence and surprise at the level of surveillance they do. But by his second stint, he has seen the change in Snowden and is starting to understand his concerns. Just because the President says it’s okay doesn’t necessarily mean it is.

This is a political film, and one can argue leans very heavily liberal, in favour of Snowden. But that’s where it gets a little more interesting, Snowden (at least until recently) identifies as conservative, and neither the Republican or Democratic presidencies gave any credence to his concerns. Snowden at least does its job helping us to understand one of the most interesting men of modern times.

Similar Titles:

Bridge of Spies (2015) - A masterful production of Cold War tensions with humour and heart.

The Imitation Game (2014) - Codes, war and homosexuality in an interesting balancing act.