Snowden (2016) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for language and some sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 134 min.
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Ben Schnetzer, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Timothy Olyphant, Nicolas Cage, Scott Eastwood, Keith Stanfield, Ben Chaplin
Small role: Edward Snowden
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone (base n the book, "The Snowden Files" by Luke Harding, and "Time of the Octopus" by Anatoly Kucherena)
Review published September 18, 2016
It would seem a daunting proposition to try to give a dramatization of events and issues that have already been captured brilliantly on film just a couple of years prior, as Snowden reenacts a good deal of the actual footage captured by documentarian Laura Poitras in her award-winning documentary, Citizenfour. To be fair, director and co-screenwriter Oliver Stone (W., World Trade Center), who has spent a good portion of his filmmaking career exploring the dangers of government tyranny, fleshes out more than that by giving us much more biographical information about his title subject, showing his time in the military, his obtaining a job working for the CIA, his eventual hire as a contractor for the NSA, and his relationship with his longtime girlfriend. Alas, just like the opinions exhibited by Snowden within the film, the more we know, the less we like what we see.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Night Before, The Walk) stars as Edward Snowden (doing a reasonable interpretation of his voice and demeanor), a neoconservative wanting to serve his country but whose military career is cut short due to frequent injuries, turning his sights to working to help is country in another capacity though a career in government intelligence. He proves to be more than adept at this job, which allows him to climb the ranks to higher and higher levels of security clearance within the CIA. However, the closer he looks at their programming, the more disturbed he is to find just how intrusive many of the surveillance software and techniques are under both the Bush and Obama administrations, leading him to have a crisis of conscience on whether the American public has a right to know about how their privacy has eroded in the computer, smart phone, internet and social media age.
Unfortunately, Snowden's story is much more interesting for what he did than for who he is, which relegates much of the build-up to that which has already been captured so well in Citizenfour to be only moderately engaging at best. Trying to inject a love story of sorts proves to be a bit of a bust, as there's nothing intrinsically interesting about Snowden's relationship with amateur photographer Lindsay Mills (Woodley, Allegiant) that merits much screen time, save for a somewhat prolonged sex scene and an excuse to show a few instances of provocative pole dancing. The better scenes revolve around Snowden on the job, discovering more each day about how intrusive the US government is when it comes to gathering information, which seems to go well above and beyond what's allowable within the law, spying on and gathering vast warehouses full of information on just about everyone it wants to, even searching through private conversations to find any scrap of information that it can use for leverage later.
Nevertheless, the film retains a modicum of watchability and interest throughout, enough to make for a well-acted, handsomely mounted, occasionally thought-provoking and moderately entertaining film that has a few major faults (excessive length and a misguided infomercial-style ending that tries in vain to tie the Hollywood story to real life among them). Despite many attempts to flesh out the character of Snowden as to who he is and why he believes what he believes, he remains an enigma throughout, never allowing us the chance to see Snowden as heroic as Stone obviously sees him, even for those who firmly believe that he has done the noble thing through his whistleblowing activities. What we end up learning is that the message is more important than the messenger, the code more important than the codebreaker.
©2016 Vince Leo