Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage
Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
After depicting such controversial episodes in the USA’s recent history as Kennedy’s assassination, the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War, it makes perfect sense for Oliver Stone to tackle the story of Edward Snowden. Indeed, the story of the celebrated whistle-blower who exposed the true depths and scope of the government’s post-9/11 surveillance capabilities seems almost tailor-made to suit Stone’s taste. There is conspiracy and corruption, an idealist who loses faith in the institution he dedicated his life towards serving, and a complex social and political debate at its core about the conflict between privacy and security. The question is whether the Platoon and JFK director could revive the energy and inspiration that allowed him to make such remarkable films all those years ago and channel them into his latest project. The answer is somewhat. Although Snowden is not Stone at his best, there is certainly a drive to this film that has been lacking in his work in recent years.
The film opens in 2013 with the documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) going to Hong Kong in secret to meet with a government agent. There they are met by Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a former CIA employee in possession of stolen files detailing the NSA’s illegal mass surveillance programme. We’re then treated to a chronology of Snowden’s career in intelligence starting with his discharge from the army for health reasons and his recruitment into the CIA. After getting the attention of Deputy Director Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) through his proficiency with computers, Snowden is taken to The Hill where he receives his first glimpse into the CIA’s surveillance operations. At this time he starts dating Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who subsequently follows him to Geneva, Japan and Hawaii. With each placement Snowden becomes more disillusioned with the unchecked disregard for privacy taking place in his own government until finally he resolves to let the truth be revealed to the world.
The story and its revelations are familiar to anyone who was watching the news at that time or who has seen the great Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour. What this film sought to do was examine the human element of that story. Who is Edward Snowden and what drove him to do what he did? The film’s version of him, portrayed strongly by Gordon-Levitt, is shown to be very much conflicted throughout the film. On one hand he feels a strong sense of duty towards his country and wants to do his part to keep it safe. However he cannot abide the limitless, intrusive measures his government is able to take to ensure that security and their indiscriminative use of those measures. What’s worse, in his view, is the total lack of transparency and awareness. It’s one thing for the government to be able to access someone’s webcam even when their computer is switched off, but the people have no idea that such a method is even possible. There is a clear sense of Snowden’s inner turmoil being conveyed as he struggles with the moral dilemma between national security and personal freedom and it is gripping.
The parts where I felt the film struggled the most were during the more ‘human’ aspects of Snowden’s story. His relationship with Lindsay for instance did not feel like an organic part of the story. It felt more tacked on to me, as if the film decided to throw in some relationship drama because this is the kind of story that’s supposed to have some relationship drama. It feels too much like these scenes belonged to another film; whenever they appeared they interrupted the rhythm and stole away from whatever momentum the film had managed to build. I also felt that there was too much hero-worshipping on Stone’s part. The debate on whether Snowden is a criminal or a patriot is an important one and it is Stone’s prerogative as an artist to let the audience know which side he agrees with. However it felt too much like Stone was more interested in celebrating Snowden than he was in humanising him, which simply made for a less thought-provoking and compelling film.
This is a story that Stone was destined to tell and it is a crying shame that he couldn’t have made it back when he was at the peak of his ability and ambition. He does a great job of depicting the bigger story taking place; the disconcerting conspiracy that took place and its foreboding Orwellian implications, the betrayed values and corrupted ideals, and the vitally difficult and challenging debate that is still taking place today. In the middle of it all however Stone loses track of the human element that was so essential to his earlier work, even with the advantage of a highly capable actor delivering a formidable performance. The story definitely revitalised a part of Stone, allowing Snowden to display a level of passion that has been missing from his films for far too long, so it is possible that we may be seeing the beginning of a comeback for the director. I certainly hope that’s the case because we could really use an Oliver Stone right about now.