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Movie Review: Snowden

Snowden is, for the most part, pretty dull
Aisle Seat, Rob Slack


Directed by Oliver Stone

In Theatres

Snowden is, for the most part, pretty dull. Boring. Understated to the point of tedium. It's just, I don't know, lethargic. That the subject is Edward Snowden and the events leading to him turning over state secrets in a Hong Kong hotel room, and it's a film by Oliver Stone, makes Snowden doubly disappointing. No matter where you, dear reader, fall on the subject of Edward Snowden's crimes, hero or heel, patriot or traitor, any film inspired by his actions should never be dull. But here we are. Even Joseph Gordon-Levitt, usually a bundle of nervous energy and charisma and intensity underplays plays Edward Snowden to the point of making him uninteresting. It's a nearly lifeless performance in a nearly lifeless film. 

Oliver Stone uses the filming of the infinitely superior documentary Citizenfour as a framing device. In Citizenfour, documentary film maker Laura Poitras captured the conversations, in real-time, between Edward Snowden, herself, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill as Snowden handed over NSA documents and walked the journalists through the American intelligence labyrinth. Unfortunately for Snowden, the film only expresses any life or pulse or heartbeat during some of the recreations of Citizenfour moments: four people sitting in a hotel room, pillows and towels piled around the door to suppress sound, Edward Snowden sitting on the bed with a blanket pulled over his head and laptop to protect his passwords, Mr. Snowden explaining the reach and breadth of the American intelligence community's surveillance, the paranoia that rises when a bedside phone rings for the first time in three days. If nothing else, the single greatest acheivement of Snowden might be to get everyone to watch Citizenfour. 

Those scenes of life in Snowden, those moments when the audience sits up and pays attention are rare and they're far between. The Oliver Stone of legend appears when the film has to explain the systems being used by the American intelligence community, has to explain the breadth and reach of the surveillance, or in those scenes I mentioned above, four people sitting in a hotel room surrounded by take out containers and coffee cups. There is something a little brilliant about using animation and voice over to explain to the audience the mechanisms of intelligence gathering. I just wish the rest of the film had that kind of energy. Instead, moments that should be exciting are so, very, very dull. When the film centres on the story of the relationship between Edward Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley their dialogue is so very, very clumsy and dull and kinda painful. When Lindsay struggles with her love of Edward against his inability to talk about what he does for a living, the audience shouldn't be checking out. And the audience shouldn't be bored when Snowden is given a field assignment during his time with the CIA. But here we are. 

One of my personal issues with the movie is that the filmmakers forget that the real Edward Snowden didn't want to be the story. He isn't Julian Assange, media savvy and concerned with his brand. Watching Citizenfour we see a young man who is self aware and realizes that the moment he is outed as the whistleblower is when the story changes from surveillance to him. His purpose in inviting a documentary filmmaker to the Hong Kong hotel is to create a media buffer for himself and the journalists. Snowden seems to have been made by people who skipped that part of the documentary. Watching this movie we see a character who seems to enjoy seeing his face on television and computer screens, a character that sees his outing as the whistleblower as the end game, not as an unavoidable consequence of his actions. It's fitting then, that the movie ends with a lecture audience giving Snowden a standing ovation while his face appears on screens. 

One of the marks in the plus column for Snowden is that even though it is dishwater dull and paint drying boring, it will serve as a conversation starter. Having Oliver Stone direct this film means that it will not be ignored. It's too bad that it's one of the weaker films Mr. Stone has been involved in. Oliver Stone has always been a conversation starter. The man's IMDB is a grocery list of controversy and ADD-inspired editing, collages and paradoxes. For decades there were two things he could never be accused of, subtlety and dullness. Writer of Midnight Express, Scarface. Director of Platoon, JFK, Natural Born Killers. Oliver Stone's Talk Radio, is never dull even though a large chunk of the film is Eric Bogosian talking into a microphone. And World Trade Center, a moving and emotional film that has, for a large part of its running time, Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena trapped under rubble. JFK is like some kind of coke smeared Rashomon-inspired madness, contradictory conspiracies and paranoia piled on top of each other until the whole thing seems ready to collapse on its own weight, until that brilliant shot of Kevin Costner staring back at the audience from the courtroom set. You could love or hate an Oliver Stone film, but you could never ignore them. Hell, Mr. Stone directed Quentin Tarantino's Natural Born Killers, a film which makes Tarantino look like a master of restraint.  

But here we are, a late career film that should have been an easy home run for Mr. Stone. The movie involves all of those go-to Oliver Stone-isms: paranoia, a government overreaching its authority, the borderline sociopathic ambition of nearly everyone involved in the intelligence community, conversations where things are said and not said, a supporting cast of ringers, sound collages and film collages. Instead, we have Nicholas Cage sucking the air out of every one of his scenes, Timothy Olyphant as the most unlikely anonymous CIA field agent since, well, ever. Snowden is a collection of odd choices and missed opportunities, that begins with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's decision to speak, with minimal modulation, in an octave lower than his normal speaking voice, which serves nothing but to draw attention to itself. It's not like the actor is trying to imitate the real person, the real Edward Snowden doesn't speak in a baritone, nor does he speak in a monotone. But here we are. 

Another missed opportunity is that Mr. Stone and his team seemed to miss one of the lessons of Citizenfour - it doesn't matter if you have nothing to hide, if you feel secure in your lawfulness. What does matter is what is the value you place on your privacy? Do you cover up your factory installed webcam? Or do you just go about your day ignoring the potential eyeballs on you? What rights are you willing to surrender? And considering the human race's track record with data collection and its uses of that data, at what point do you say enough is enough? 

Anyway, I better wrap this up before I expose my own feelings on l'affaire Snowden. Look, just find a copy of Citizenfour, it is one of the most remarkable documentaries of, well, ever.