by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 16, 2016


The Academy Award-winning director Oliver Stone purchased a lot of book rights in order to be the man who made a movie called "Snowden." But in the end he and screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald attempt to dramatize what is essentially a lot of sitting behind a computer and working with code by jumping back and forth in time, adding cool (almost psychedelic) film effects and focusing on the romantic relationship between Edward Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills.

At its heart this film is a biopic about Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the American whistle blower who exposed the level at which the U.S. government has been surveilling its own citizens and its allies. Snowden is a controversial and demonized figure, and this movie attempts to show him as a human being and a levelheaded activist.

The movie starts out like a typical Hollywood hero picture decked out in all the adornments that this director loves: Politics, a government conspiracy and a patriot who dares to question authority. Snowden goes into the army and through the dramatic ritual of basic training (and it's just as we've seen it portrayed in countless other movies), but then he is forced into a desk job for health reasons. After being accepted by the CIA, he quickly proves that he's a wunderkind and rises to the top of his class even though he only has a high school education.

The intensely private young Edward cute meets the love of his life, Mills (Shailene Woodley), in a scene where she opens him up by taking goofy photographs of him. He shyly falls for her, pretending that he doesn't enjoy kissing her because she "tastes like a liberal."

This is interspersed with a flash forward to 2013. In a Hong Kong hotel, the whistleblower exposes the scope of America's surveillance apparatus to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson).

(For the record, it's far more interesting to watch this exchange happen for real, and in better detail, in Poitras' Academy Award-winning documentary "Citizenfour.")

As a young agent, Snowden tries to work in the field, but quickly realizes that he has too much integrity for this type of work. This job requires an agent to compromise people and endanger their lives far too often, so he focuses on creating surveillance software.

Unlike last year's Academy Award-winner "Spotlight," where the visual and narrative techniques never make you question the truth of the subject matter. "Snowden"'s storytelling and visual style continually make it suspect. A subjective camera, filmic effects, distorting lenses, extreme close ups, picturesque framing and visual allusions to classics like "1984" may do something to amplify interest, but ultimately compromise this film's veracity.

Eventually leaving the CIA and working for them only as a contractor, Snowden goes through a lot of ups and downs in his relationship. Mills follows him to Hawaii, where she believes he will have less stress, but he actually embarks on the biggest project of his career, the one that he will eventually choose to expose to the world.

This is an important subject, and something that we should all inform ourselves about, but Oliver Stone's movie is mired in the pitfalls of a biopic. It tries to cover too much information, much of which is complex and inaccessible. Many of the most interesting details may be fictionalized. (Before trial, Snowden can neither confirm nor deny these things.) And rather than focusing on interesting issues, it focuses on the romance between Snowden and his girlfriend.

Edward Snowden is an interesting person -- an intelligent, levelheaded activist with a strong moral code and a deep sense of integrity. He is an idealist and a patriot who demands the best of his country. But he's not a very interesting character. In order to paint him as a hero and get him to actually appear in the movie (which he does briefly in the end) Stone can't really explore his flaws.

If this movie accomplishes anything, it will give some information (much of it romanticized, but nevertheless) to the uninformed population. Complacency to a government that exercises far too much power, misleads (if not downright lies) to its citizens and creates convenient laws to subvert the protections of the Constitution is dangerous.

It's easy to be smug when you're on the side of the most powerful player and the biggest bully. The average American has decided, "I have nothing to fear, because I have nothing to hide. So I'm willing to sacrifice my freedoms." But Edward Snowden wants the world to know that if this ever changed, it would be "turnkey tyranny."

Snowden watched as higher-ups crushed the messages and the lives of his fellows, Thomas Andrews Drake and William Binney, who tried to get their messages out through legal channels. He knew he would get nowhere doing the same thing, so this man sacrificed a comfortable life for the truth to be exposed.

"Saying 'I don't need privacy because I have nothing to hide,'" Snowden says, "is like saying 'I don't need freedom of speech because I have nothing to say.'"

With "Snowden," Oliver Stone has delivered Edward's message. We no longer fear "free and unrestrained surveillance. It's become an expectation that we're being watched. This limits the boundaries of our intellectual exploration."

The director, who has had some enormous successes in the past, is vying for another Academy Award. But this film could have been made better by a different filmmaker with less Hollywood politics and a narrower scope. It will be more work for you intellectually, but far more rewarding, to watch the documentary "Citizenfour."


Related Story


Read More »