Snowden is the latest from classic film director Oliver Stone. Yes, it is kind of a biographical character study of Mr. Snowden. But it is also a thriller of sorts, and a romance, and … a film that poses the questions about whether or not Snowden is a heroic whistle-blower or a traitor.
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden and Shaileen Woodley as his g/f Lindsay Mills, the film opens in a room in the Mira Hotel on Nathan Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Present are documentary film maker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), the Scottish journalist Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), and the American Journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), along with Mr. Snowden. He’s about to turn over the files he had in his possession which detailed how the US Government was using sophisticated technology to keep an eye on its own citizens.
In short, this hardware and the programs written for it enabled the US to monitor every cell phone in the world.
But it is at that point that film give us a flashback to a far younger Edward Snowden.
This time he’s a member of a squadron of Special Forces trainees in boot camp. A slightly built man, we learn that the stress of carrying 80 pounds of gear was a bit too much for Snowden’s legs.
The doctor shows him the x-rays and tells him, it appears that you have been going through the drills with stress fractures in both legs for at least a couple of weeks.
The doctor is going to discharge Snowden from the active military. He tells him, you will have to find another way to serve your country.
Which leads Snowden to apply for a job at the CIA. This is where he meets Corbin O’Brian who will become his mentor. O’Brian is played by Rhys Ifans, who comes close to stealing the film away from Gordon-Levitt and Woodley.
I hadn’t seen much of Ifans. I think the only two films I saw him in were Notting Hill in 1999 and The Replacements in 2000. In both of those, Ifans came off as a somewhat, if not downright, goofy character. Here, he’s altogether different. This time out he plays like a younger Max Von Sydow. And he’s very good.
So much for our introduction. Snowden’s career in the intelligence industry has just begun. We are going to follow Snowden as he meets Lindsay Mills, then takes on posts as an intelligence contractor to locations like Geneva, Tokyo, and Oahu in Hawaii.
The film follows Snowden’s career from posting to posting. As a contractor he’s doing very well financially. He has a relationship with a fine woman, and yet – he’s not happy. His job involves long hours as well as travel and he can’t tell Lindsay anything of what he’s done, doing, or working on. It eats away at him.
And this is Oliver Stone’s main point. His set up is that Snowden did not just blow the whistle for the sake of blowing the whistle. Yes, there came a point when he could no long reconcile to himself, that his specific work had nothing to do with events that happened, not only within the US but across the world as well.
It was only when he discovered or realized that neither he nor Lindsay were truly safe, that he decided to take action
Stone through Snowden delivers the message that the aftermath of his actions would put innocent and happy Americans in the cross hairs of the NSA, that the NSA and all the rest of the government apparatus would come after him, and to top that off, the journalists that Snowden had worked with would come under severe scrutiny as well.
Yet he turned over the data he had downloaded and stolen anyway. At minimum, his own life as he had known it over the last nine years would end – he might be killed, or he’d be spending the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.
Stone’s film works in many regards. The film has been made with competence and clarity. The actors are all excellent in their roles. But history has provided us with the knowledge of how the Snowden story played out at least to this point in time. Which diminishes the thriller aspects. The romantic parts of the film may provide us with some insights into Snowden’s motivations. And that weakens or allows less time for kind of conspiracy plot lines.
My view is that film is a bit too long, and that it attempts to deepen more than it should. Meaning the motivations, the drama, the thriller aspects, and the romance angles are all short-changed. which leaves the viewer in a quandary. The film is both too long in totality (134 minutes) and too short in detail.
I’ll rate the film at three-point seven five, and I’ll recommend it. But it could have been so much better. Both the elements of what we already know (history) and the overreaching attempt at giving us more than we truly need all contribute to film being watchable, entertaining, and yet, oddly not compelling.