Snowden

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.

★★★

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The Walk

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne


Right after Philippe Petit walked the line between the Twin Towers, the question on everybody’s lips was ‘why’. Why would any man in his right mind attempt such a reckless and dangerous feat? Why would he go to such great lengths as to break the law and endanger his own life just to perform a stunt? Why did this matter to him so much that he was willing to risk everything to achieve it? In response he simply answered, “there is no ‘why’”. There are some things in life that are more than aspirations or ambitions; they are callings. Philippe himself may not quite know why he attempted this exploit (not in words at least); all he knew was that he had to. Through his story the film explores this idea of the impossible dream and the kind of dedication, faith and madness it takes to pursue it.

Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a French street performer who first hears of the World Trade Centre while flipping through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. In that moment he is suddenly struck by inspiration and hereby makes it his mission in life to one day walk on a tightrope between the two tallest towers in the world. He recruits a team, including a street performer called Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), to fly to New York with him so that he might realise his goal before the construction of the towers is complete. Using the lessons and techniques taught to him by the circus performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), Philippe overcomes legal and personal obstacles to perform one of the most daring and insane deeds in recent history.

For the sake of full disclosure I should point out that I haven’t seen Man on Wire. Therefore this film marks my official introduction to Philippe’s remarkable story, and what an introduction it is. For me this is easily one of the best-directed films of the year so far and is also some of the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen in a film. When Philippe walks on that wire with the great void and chasm between the Twin Towers silently and ominously encircling him, you are right there with him. I was practically clutching the sides of my seat holding on for dear life as Philippe gracefully treaded the thin line that separated him from a fatal fall. The film’s climax is a terrifying, thrilling and astonishing piece of cinema that also captures a profound moment of beauty and poignancy. As Philippe stands on top of the world and realises the sums of his ambitions there is a deep sense of perspective as he comes to understand what this accomplishment really means to him. Philippe may not have known or was unable to explain his reasons for attempting this feat but whatever it was he was looking for, he found it.

As for the rest of the film, I really enjoyed it. One of the main criticisms I found amongst others was the film’s use of narration and its breaking of the fourth wall but, while I’d be lying if I said I didn’t at times find it annoying or distracting, I actually think it works for the film. Philippe as a character is passionate, animated, arrogant, eccentric and reckless. He is therefore exactly the kind of person who would break the fourth wall and who would narrate his own story. The narration can be overbearing at times, but Philippe himself can be overbearing at times as well. That’s why I think the film’s style of narration works well at establishing and defining his character. The performance of Gordon-Levitt also does a magnificent job in this regard. The zeal and enthusiasm he displays as Philippe is a lot of fun to watch and makes the character utterly irresistible. However the film does remain balanced in its view of Philippe, highlighting the irresponsibility, arrogance and madness driving his actions. Yet, while these traits are hardly his most admirable qualities, he probably couldn’t have achieved his dream without them. After all, you’d have to be some kind of crazy to even attempt a feat this irrational. It is an interesting character study of a wholly remarkable man.

It’s been over a week since I’ve seen this film and I still get a slight sense of vertigo just thinking about it. As a story the film is interesting enough, even if the supporting characters don’t get much focus or development, and I do think it is well told, even if the pacing is somewhat haphazard and the narration sometimes distracting. In the end though what really makes this film special is the actual walk itself. That is the moment when the film truly comes to life and flourishes on an immersive and breathtaking level. Watching Philippe walk the tightrope was one of the most astonishing cinematic experiences I’ve had this year and was worth the price of admission alone. Yet, as well as having one the most incredible scenes of the year, The Walk is also an engaging and entertaining tale of daring, conviction and aspiration and one that I would recommend to anybody (who isn’t acrophobic).

★★★★★