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Review: Snowden (2016)

Snowden (2016)

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Premise: Based on a true story. Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works for the National Security Administration and discovers that the United States’ government is engaged in illegal and unethical surveillance operations.

What Works: Snowden follows in the tradition of paranoia thrillers of the 1970s such as The Conversation, Marathon Man, and The Parallax View. Typically in those films innocent people get caught up in a conspiracy and must fight to stop an injustice or clear their name. Snowden works within the conventions of that kind of film in telling the true story of Edward Snowden, a defense contractor who was employed by the CIA and the NSA to work on surveillance programs and eventually had a crisis of conscience that led Snowden to leak classified documents to the press and expose these programs to the world. The filmmakers of Snowden adopt the familiar conventions of paranoia thrillers in a way that lets the audience recognize the kind of story this is and settle into the picture. However, they also flip the perspective from an outsider pursued by the machine to someone working inside the vast bureaucracy of the national security state and is powerless to stop it. That aspect of this story is done well and Snowden is portrayed as a patriot and a true believer who joined the military after the September 11th attack only to be disillusioned by the abuses of power and breaches of legal standards. Edward Snowden is well played by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt who captures the real Snowden’s voice and mannerisms but also conveys this man’s inner turmoil. The movie has some tense scenes as Snowden finds himself at odds with the power structure and the film makes the digital devices we are normally so fond of into intrusive and intimidating tools of the state.

What Doesn’t: Like a lot of Oliver Stone’s films, Snowden is a movie with a political agenda. That in itself is not bad but Snowden is too didactic for its own good. The drama is overwhelmed by the moviemakers’ political grandstanding. A lot of the information in Snowden has been presented before—and better—in Laura Poitras’ 2014 documentary Citizenfour. In fact, Snowden dramatizes some of the making of that film, namely the interview between Edward Snowden and documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill (played by Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson). The justification for making a dramatization, as opposed to a documentary, is to explore the human issues of the matter. A dramatization can still be persuasive but it must do so by acting out its arguments and exploiting the human subtleties of the conflict. A lot of Snowden is blunt and superficial. The film’s shortcomings as a drama are best observed in the relationship between the title character and his longtime girlfriend played by Shailene Woodley. Their portion of the movie is critical to the drama; it’s a love story in which the NSA is the force driving them apart. The script doesn’t give Woodley very much to do and Woodley and Gordon-Levitt lack romantic chemistry. These two come together and drift apart but the movie doesn’t compel us to care if they find their way back to each other. The moral and ethical issues are presented very simply and the filmmakers don’t give their opposition enough credit. As Edward Snowden’s detractor’s might point out, there are bad people in the world who need to be stopped, privacy is not necessarily the same as freedom, and many American citizens have already willingly surrendered their privacy through social media. These counterarguments might have complicated the issues of this story and therefore made Snowden a richer drama but they are barely even acknowledged.

Bottom Line: Snowden is a competent thriller and it tells the story of Edward Snowden well enough. But it does tend to oversimplify a complex topic and viewers who are most interested in the facts of the case would probably do better seeking out Citizenfour.

Episode: #613 (September 25, 2016)