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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Star Trek Beyond

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Idris Elba

Director: Justin Lin

Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung


I’m not a huge Star Trek fan. I don’t mean that in the sense that I don’t like it but rather in the sense that I haven’t watched enough of it to consider myself a huge fan. While I have watched all three instalments of the reboot, the only classic Star Trek movie I’ve ever gotten round to seeing is Wrath of Khan (which I found to be a better movie than any of the new ones). Therefore when I talk about the characters in this movie and the universe they inhabit, I do so from an unenlightened perspective. I am not intimately familiar with this franchise and have no substantive opinion of how a Star Trek movie is supposed to be done. The only fair standard I can set for this film is that provided by the J.J. Abrams movies, both of which I enjoyed but didn’t love. That is more or less how I feel about this movie as well.

Three years into their five-year mission, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) starts contemplating the endless nature of their voyage as he approaches his thirtieth birthday, making him one year younger than his father was when he died. While on shore leave Kirk is offered a promotion and recommends Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his successor, should he accept that is. Spock meanwhile finds himself in a similarly dejected state after ending his relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and receiving word that Ambassador Spock has died. The Enterprise is then sent on a rescue mission which turns out to be an ambush. The ship is destroyed by Krall (Idris Elba), a ruthless alien seeking revenge against the United Federation of Planets, and most of the crew is taken captive. Kirk manages to escape with Chekov (Anton Yelchin) while Spock escapes with Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban). Stranded, scattered and crippled, it is up to Kirk to reunite his crew, find out what Krall is planning and save the Federation.

While I understand that the classic Star Trek movies were largely concerned with character-based drama and themes of morality and philosophy, these modern takes have leaned more heavily towards aspects of action/adventure. Although I’ve enjoyed these movies for the thrills they’ve provided, I have often felt that the stories and characters have left me wanting. While the characters in these films are certainly memorable, likeable and entertaining to watch, I’ve seldom found them to be truly compelling. In Star Trek Beyond there was a lot of potential for drama that the movie was able to set up but couldn’t quite follow through on. In Kirk’s arc for example it seems like the movie is trying to present him in a lost, estranged state, living under the shadow of the father he never knew and undergoing a crisis of identity. To me however, it just came across as Kirk being bored of his job. Spock, who lost his home planet in the first film and has learned of the passing of his alternate self, could have been allowed to confront issues of mortality, endurance and responsibility. Instead he breaks up with his girlfriend. Because these movies are so focused on getting to the action, there just isn’t enough time for them to really ask the big questions or to delve deeply into these characters. This doesn’t make them bad or boring, it just makes them somewhat unfulfilling.

Still, the action is often spectacular and is a nice change from the shaky cam and lens flares that often proved distracting in the Abrams movies. There are some incredible sequences in this film, such as Krall’s attack on the Enterprise, that had my heart racing. The action does get more generic in the third act but the ones that really work well are simply stunning. The movie also puts its excellent cast to good use, at least on an entertainment level. The banter between Spock and Bones is good for a few laughs. Pegg provides Scotty with plenty of moments in the spotlight and crushes them. Uhura isn’t given really given enough to do but Saldana is still able to deliver far more than what she was given. Pine has really grown into the role of Kirk and carries an undeniable air of authority befitting a strong and respected leader. The only disappointment was the villain who, despite Elba’s best efforts, is let down by a forgettable personality, vague motivations and a weak plot twist.

Star Trek Beyond is a good enough movie on a purely entertaining level. It has good characters portrayed by a superb cast, some great comedic highlights and plenty of action. It’s weakness, as with the previous two instalments, is its inability to give its story and character the depth that they deserve. The promise is there, the films just aren’t brave enough to follow through with it. Star Trek Beyond is thrilling and it is enjoyable, but there ultimately isn’t very much that separates it from all the other sci-fi/action blockbusters being made today. I may not have seen enough of the classic Star Trek movies and TV shows to claim any sort of authority where they are concerned, but what little I have seen I’ve found to be intelligent, captivating and unlike any big budget movie being made in this current climate. If these movies ever took the risk of putting the action in the backseat and allowed themselves to attempt that same level of innovation and nuance, we might have been treated to something truly special.

★★★