Edward Snowden film

SNOWDEN Review: This Is Why We Need Journalism

Monday, September 19, 2016 Rob Samuelson

America needs journalists. Journalists need resources to do their jobs well. Snowden, the latest film from Oliver Stone (Platoon, Wall Street), unwittingly makes a terrific argument in favor of giving those journalists what they need to tell the world’s important stories -- because sometimes narrative filmmaking just doesn’t cut it, particularly when they don't have historical perspective.

The story of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked hundreds of thousands of documents in 2013 that described the scope of the federal government’s surveillance of its own (innocent) citizens, is massive. It is dense. It is complex. Crucially, it is ongoing, a stark contrast to 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, another look at recent American political history that one can reasonably guess was an influence on this film. Oliver Stone’s dramatized version of Snowden’s unsettled situation is not equipped to handle these angles. When it tries, it does so clumsily.

Snowden’s crimes are myriad -- regardless of your thoughts on whether his actions were moral, he broke numerous laws -- and they require a great deal of reading, contextualizing, and consultation with security experts across the political spectrum to understand. A timeline, like the one provided by the Guardian about Snowden’s summer 2013 activities and the same newspaper’s longer discussion of the leaks themselves, is necessary to make sense of the terms like PRISM and metadata and how they affect American and international citizens alike.

These details were profiled in Laura Poitras’s essential 2014 documentary on Snowden, Citizenfour. She, then-Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (now of The Intercept website), and Greenwald’s Guardian colleague Ewen MacAskill spent a week with Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel while they worked on the stories that would make Snowden an internationally known figure and fugitive. Stone dramatizes many of Citizenfour’s finest moments, but Snowden loses the immediacy of Poitras’s (played in Snowden by Melissa Leo) documentary. Snowden tries to recreate the sense of profound (and profoundly disturbing) discovery that accompanied the journalists’ reactions in Citizenfour, but it can’t. As a feature film, it cannot adhere to the “first draft of history” cliche you learn about in journalism school. It is too slow to react to ongoing stories.

None of this is Snowden’s fault, per sé, because it certainly has a wider reach than a documentary. Most of Snowden’s audience has not seen Citizenfour, so much of these details are new to them. But the feature film’s noble intentions -- to retell chunks of the great documentary’s story for a wider audience -- fails as a dramatic pursuit. Whenever Stone cuts to Poitras, Greenwald (Zachary Quinto of Star Trek Beyond), MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson, Selma), and Snowden in Hong Kong over that tense June 2013 week, it feels a PowerPoint presentation in a drowsy mid-afternoon meeting. It’s just bullet point after bullet point of drab exposition with the occasional nod to the fact that American agents could bust down the door at any moment -- but because most of the film’s audience knows that Snowden remains a wanted man, the sharp edges of that tension is smoothed. Stone understands these limitations and occasionally tries to liven things up for this most visual of mediums with CGI animation showing how one person’s phone contacts can lead government surveillance officers to virtually every other person on the planet. But every time Stone returns to the hotel, it stops cold the more effective storytelling of the rest of the movie.

Outside that hotel room, Stone and company explore Snowden’s life for a decade before he leaked the documents. It jumps around in his personal chronology, from his time as a rather conservative infantryman in the U.S. Army -- he had to leave because of broken legs (or much more minor shin splints, depending on whose story you believe) -- through his disillusionment as a member of the CIA and his inability to remove himself entirely from the intelligence community, which leads to his eventual choice to drop everything to inform the American public about their lack of privacy. At the same time, it follows his fraying relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley, Divergent), who sticks with him through various career-related relocations (to Switzerland, Japan, and finally Hawaii) and numerous bouts of warranted paranoia.

As a matter of logic, this functions. All the character building signposts are there on paper -- Snowden doesn’t hesitate to call America the greatest country in the world in his CIA polygraph tests, he wants to do something to help the country after he can’t cut it in the Army, etc. -- but in practice they’re missing something. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s natural exuberance is muted beneath the stuffy and measured Snowden. Gordon-Levitt’s vocal impression of Snowden is note perfect, but he often appears to be reaching deep for Snowden’s peculiar vocal inflections rather than investing himself physically within a scene. Snowden’s robotic reputation means that Gordon-Levitt has to internalize much of his character’s conflict, which leaves him as more a literary character than a cinematic one. He sits at his desk, cold and slightly frustrated, while he witnesses invasions of privacy to a degree the world has never known. Perhaps that's how the real Snowden reacted to these things in real time, but they lack a visceral punch. Holding the camera on Gordon-Levitt’s face while the lights of a computer screen don't get the movie to the place it needs to be.

By getting so tied up in the minutia of history, the film struggles to be a successful character study. Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay has a first draft quality to it. Their first date, a walk through Washington DC while Iraq war protesters ask (or badger?) them to sign petitions, reads almost like co-screenwriters Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald’s outline rather than genuine human interaction: “This is where she signs the petition because she’s a liberal while he politely declines like a conservative, then they kiss to make up.” This follows though every beat of their relationship, with only one fight feeling like how real people would behave around each other during a time of intense stress, right as Snowden begins to resent the things he is made to do for the country.

Snowden blossoms when it leans into its inherent thriller trappings. Why shouldn't it? It's a movie about an espionage agent who goes on the run after stealing (some of)  his government’s biggest secrets. This manifests itself in three sequences that bring the movie into allegorical territory -- territory one wishes Stone and company had focused on the entire time rather than doing Cliff’s Notes versions of journalists’ work. An operation in Switzerland to pressure a Pakistani banker into turning into a CIA informant utilizes the smooth sneakiness of Justified’s Timothy Olyphant while Gordon-Levitt emotes nervousness and discomfort with the premise of the situation. Later, a Skype conversation Snowden has with his former CIA boss (Rhys Ifans) reveals how little privacy he has, while Ifans’s webcam-distorted face fits to the size of a conference room wall -- his skinny, craggy face is among the most malevolent Big Brothers in recent memory.

But Snowden’s finest, tensest moment is the sequence that shows how he pulled it all off, seen near the end of the film (but in every trailer). While stationed at a massive underground NSA complex in Hawaii in the early part of 2013, Snowden managed to smuggle out all of the information that has since leaked. The way Stone and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle use the space -- the cramped quarters Snowden shared with his coworkers, the cold and gray ceilings that hang a little too low for comfort, the stacks of computer information and blinking screens -- to envelope Gordon-Levitt’s body like he will soon be crushed. As he downloads the piles of digital information onto an SD card, any coworker or superior could catch him at any moment. Once he completes the download, he snaps it into place under a tile of a Rubik’s Cube, a puzzle device that had long served as a totem to keep him grounded in an increasingly impossible-to-understand world. He tosses it to a security guard on his way out of the building, daring the guard to solve the puzzle -- of the cube, but also of the man who is on his way to becoming a nationless wanderer. This is exactly what a movie about the life of Edward Snowden could be and it’s a shame Stone didn’t leave the difficult, complicated information sifting to the journalists.

Director: Oliver Stone Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans Rating: Two-and-a-half stars out of five Available in theaters now

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