Movie Review: ‘Snowden’

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In one of the final scenes of Oliver Stone’s fact-based drama “Snowden,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s on-screen version of NSA leaker Edward Snowden appears before an auditorium full of people to deliver an impassioned defense of his decision to release – illegally — thousands of classified documents exposing the American government’s broad domestic surveillance apparatus. If anyone was the slightest bit unsure of how Stone views Snowden’s actions, they need only scan the on-screen audience in that scene.

There, for a brief moment, one can see Stone himself, standing with the rest of the on-screen audience, and applauding Snowden.

Though just a cameo, it’s a significant one. If the previous two hours hadn’t made it abundantly clear, that moment — and the sight of the filmmaker/provocateur applauding one of the most controversial figures of the past decade – leaves no confusion that “Snowden” is a hero piece, and an unapologetic one.

Anyone familiar with Stone’s work, and his immense distrust of the American government, shouldn’t be too terribly surprised by that. And to be honest, that’s fine. Opinions today are sharply divided about Snowden’s choice to go from CIA contractor to political activist: Is he a hero or traitor? A whistleblower or a rat? A people’s champion or a deluded hacker? But once the fog of contemporaneousness lifts, history very well might look kindly on Snowden.

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Regardless, Stone’s characteristic on-his-sleeve political views aren’t the problem with the often-sleepy “Snowden.” Rather, it’s that his film – the lag-prone script for which the filmmaker co-wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald – really doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know.

That’ll certainly be the case for anyone who saw director Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary “Citizenfour,” a remarkable bit of filmmaking in which her cameras captured the very moment – and the riveting aftermath – in which Snowden spilled the beans on the NSA’s no-holds-barred dragnet of the American people.

For the most part, Stone’s film is a dramatization of much of what we see in “Citizenfour,” interspersed with scenes re-creating key moments from Snowden’s personal life. The presumed goal there, in addition to explaining Snowden’s rationale behind his actions, is to paint a full and honest portrait of the man behind the headlines.

But despite an eerily accurate portrayal of Snowden by Gordon-Levitt – who perfectly re-creates Snowden’s robotic mannerisms, starting with his weird, clipped manner of speaking – Stone’s film never really delivers on that promise.

He gives us snapshots of Snowden’s pre-pariah life: a look at his aborted military career, a peek into his decision to sign on with the CIA, a glimpse of his relationship with longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (played by Shailene Woodley). But by the end of it all, Snowden – who early in the film shows a fascination for cryptography in a scene with an oddly cast Nicolas Cage – is still something of an enigma himself.

Part of that can be blamed on the film’s lack of details. In one scene, dramatizing an argument between Snowden and Mills, we learn that he likes to play video games after work, for example. (What video game? That’s potentially telling tidbit is never answered.) But that’s the farthest “Snowden” goes to personalize him to any extent or to add to his already well-covered story.

Rather, Stone – who appears on-screen before the film to encourage audiences to stow their cell phones (which he says will “burn your life to the ground”) during the movie – seems more interested in establishing for the record that he stands with Snowden and against government overreach.

The result is a slow, dense but worshipful film that, co-written by Stone with Kieran Fitzgerald, trades away the story’s built-in thrills – such as Snowden’s getaway from a Hong Kong hotel after releasing the documents, which is given perfunctory treatment at best near the film’s end – in favor of talkiness and general point-belaboring.

Whether you agree with Snowden or not, it’s undeniable that he is at the epicenter of what will likely go down as one of the major issues of the early 21stcentury. One way or the other, it can be safety assumed, the whole Snowden affair will be remembered, in history books and elsewhere.

The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for Stone’s “Snowden.”

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