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Snowden - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

Two years ago there was a film called Citizenfour, which featured the real-life Edward Snowden, which was not just the best documentary of 2014, but one of the ten best movies of the year. If I could, I would tell you right off just to go watch that movie instead of the Hollywood version now being presented by Oliver Stone. I mean, if you can find it to rent on demand somewhere, or even if you still live in 2004 and rent physical DVDs, by all means, rent Citizenfour and watch it instead. (Unfortunately, the film is not currently streaming on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.) It has all the suspense that Oliver Stone's Snowden is clearly going for but kind of missed the mark.

That doesn't make Snowden a bad movie, and there's actually something to be said for the mainstreaming of a lot of the themes and information presented here -- this is stuff we should know, and should be thinking about. These things also get a little buried under the weight of storytelling so conventional it borders on the cliché.

Given Oliver Stone's spotty (to be generous) history over the past couple of decades, it's easy to expect Snowden to be over the top, overwrought claptrap, and it's a relief to find it is not particularly any of those things. On the other hand, he is so restrained, at least compared to much of the rest of his work, that this movie becomes, if not outright dull, then relatively forgettable. And that is not what the story of Edward Snowden should be.

Snowden is clearly presented here as a hero -- a key difference from the documentary, which was specifically about the time he spent in a Hong Kong hotel room, from which he leaked all the information about NSA surveillance in 2013, and his narrow escape from the authorities there. The documentary is pointedly neutral about the ethics of what Snowden did. Oliver Stone wants us to see him as a patriot who did the right thing. And the argument could certainly be made that he did -- but there are also valid points to be made about not having the whole picture, and how difficult that makes coming to an informed conclusion. Snowden's superiors make these points in the film, but since Snowden is the hero and he doesn't trust them, we as the audience are conditioned not to trust them as well.

There is no question, though, about the shady nature of government overreach and ability to monitor us in ways we never consider. Snowden's girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley, a great actor given material here that only reveals a fraction of her talent) becomes the voice of the many cynical Americans who blithely say, "So what? I have nothing to hide." But if you think hard enough, you do. And did you know someone can activate your computer camera and watch you through it even when you think you've turned it off? This is some truly Orwellian shit -- and it's real.

That's the weirdest part of watching a movie like Snowden: it may be a fictionalized retelling of the story, but it's not just a story about Edward Snowden (and, to a far lesser degree, his girlfriend), but it's a story about all of us. I keep my cell phone on at all times; I merely keep it on vibrate to make sure it never rings during a movie. The NSA -- or any hacker with a modicum of ability, for that matter -- could literally have hijacked my phone and listened to the sound of the dialogue in Snowden while I was watching the movie. There's something inherently creepy, not just about a realization of this sort, but the timing of the realization. The only comfort I have as an individual is actually the sheer millions of people being monitored: since I am a nobody, the odds are in my favor. NSA computer programs are one thing, but actual human eyeballs can only look at so many people in their bedrooms through their webcams. (You still might want to consider all the things you've done in front of a computer camera though, whether you thought the camera was on or not.)

Stone, for his part, certainly plays up the Orwellian factor. Consider this line, uttered by Rhys Ifans as Snowden's boss, about the public not knowing the extent of the NSA's reach: "Secrecy is security, and security is victory." That line is not straight from the novel 1984, but it sure sounds like it could be. You get the sense that Stone and his co-script writer Kieran Fitzgerald are very aware of that.

That said, the deepest flaw of Snowden is how making a Hollywood movie version of this story, by its very existence, dumbs it down and weakens any sustained and meaningful arguments about it -- on either side. In Citizenfour, which I can't stress enough is vital viewing (since it works better than this movie both as speaking truth to power and as suspenseful storytelling), even the greatest lovers of Barack Obama are faced with a moral dilemma about whether their beloved president is really such a great man. Oliver Stone merely shows us a guy who starts off a self-avowed conservative and patriot, who then shifted his loyalties to Obama due to campaign promises about reigning in surveillance overreach, before simply declaring "I was wrong" about the man.

Snowden is provocative, in its way. Just not enough. The big name actors playing the parts are themselves a bit of a distraction: Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a very good job of mimicking Edward Snowden's distinctive speech patterns, but being impressed by impersonation isn't what we're here for. And, oh look: there's Zachary Quinto, and Tom Wilkinson, and Melissa Leo, as the reporters receiving Snowden's leaked information in his Hong Kong hotel room. The editing, which goes back and forth from the hotel room to events over the previous decade to tell the story, is fairly effective at keeping the viewer engaged and invested. But Oliver Stone makes this movie a little too much more about the characters than the very issues that are the reasons for this movie's existence. This is a movie that should have been a little more "I can't stress enough how important this is" than just "This is what happened and why." That said, an Oliver Stone movie moving more in the former direction would likely do it no favors. Snowden is the very rare case of a movie with admirable restraint that still would have been far better served by someone else.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt blows the whistle in SNOWDEN.

Overall: B
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