Directed by Oliver Stone.
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Joely Richardson, Ben Schnetzer, Scott Eastwood and Nicolas Cage.
The story of Edward Snowden, former soldier and CIA operative, who went on to work for the NSA and make public the agency’s illegal surveillance techniques by leaking thousands of classified documents to The Guardian newspaper.
A couple of weeks ago, Oliver Stone’s Snowden had the kind of publicity it didn’t want. It made it into the Forbes’ list of the top ten cinematic flops of 2016. Coming in at number nine, its takings were $34.3 million against a budget of $40 million. A mere $5.7 million in the red, then. Could its UK distributors be hoping that an extensive release here will improve the figures?
But those stats also indicate that a decent number of American moviegoers came out to see a film about one of the most divisive figures in their modern history – and a movie that takes a well-defined stance right from the outset. We’re shown Snowden’s career, starting with the Army – he wasn’t a natural – and then his subsequent moves to the CIA and the NSA. As his career progresses, he becomes more disillusioned about the organisations he works for and more convinced that people should know. He eventually reveals all to Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), the documentary maker behind Citizenfour, along with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who break the story. All hell breaks loose. Branded a hacker by the president, and with his passport revoked, Snowden eventually finds refuge in Russia, which is where he lives now.
Stone’s position is crystal clear. Snowden is a hero, a man of principle and conscience, a patriot. And that’s the end of it. There’s no attempt to tell another side to the story and, when we do hear from his detractors, they’re portrayed as enemies and little else. Which makes this a difficult and sometimes frustrating film. Such a one-sided approach makes for a hectoring tone, as good as telling the audience that if it doesn’t share Stone’s opinion, it’s inherently wrong. He reinforces his stance by including an appearance from The Guardian’s Editor In Chief from 2013, when the story originally broke. Alan Rusbridger plays himself and, even though he’s not billed by name, it’s obvious why he’s there.
In true Oliver Stone tradition, the film’s come in for a lot of flack. But, lop-sided stance aside, it’s not all bad. Paranoia is in its life blood, rippling through the story and mounting as Snowden’s own concerns grow. It’s contagious, and you might find yourself less trusting of that webcam built into your laptop. You may go so far as to cover it up when you leave the room.
As in older films like JFK and Nixon, Stone’s assembled an interesting cast, full of familiar faces. It’s held together by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden, idealistic almost to the point of naïve at the outset, but losing his illusions, layer by layer, as the film progresses. Shailene Woodley is excellent as his girlfriend, his political opposite when they first meet but who continues to stand by him, even though she finds it increasingly difficult. Along with Quinto and Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Joely Richardson, the chameleon-like Ben Schnetzer, Rhys Ifans, Scott Eastwood and Nicolas Cage all have their moments, some more successfully than others. Wilkinson makes a convincing experienced hack, while you’re almost taken in by the duplicitous Schnetzer, but Cage over-cooks his role and Eastwood is plain wooden.
While some parts of the film confirm what we’ve heard in the media, there are others where we simply don’t know if Stone is just exercising dramatic license to fit his opinion. This makes Snowden, by his standards, one of his least questioning projects. What could have been a really thought-provoking film about the power of the state and whistle-blowing has been turned into nothing more than old-fashioned agit-prop.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★