Open Road Films 2 hours 14 minutes R
Oliver Stone is certainly not afraid of controversial subjects, yet he says he was hesitant to take on this one. Laura Poitras is played by Melissa Leo in this movie. She had already made an Academy Award winning documentary showing the real Snowden as the actual leaks were released through journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto). Greenwald’s reports were published in The Guardian in 2013.
But after meeting secretly with Snowden nine times in Moscow, Stone found more than the conflicts and struggle Snowden had exposing Global Surveillance and its implications. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, plays Snowden with quiet fury. Snowden is really very shy. But Stone found drama in the intimate relationship Snowden had with his long-time girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, during his time as a cyber counter terrorism specialist. Shailene Woodley supplies the right amount of passion, trust and love as his girlfriend, while being kept completely in the dark about what her lover does for a living. Snowden says he had to keep her out of it for her own safety.
News cycles are so fast these days it may be easy for us to forget who Edward Snowden is and why he dominated the news in the Spring of 2013. Even Gordon-Levitt said he had to be reminded who he was. Oliver Stone wanted to show the human side of this very young 29-year-old computer whiz with the highest National Security Agency clearance who leaked secret documents about the U.S. Government intelligence gathering operations. In exposing the global network that collected data on millions of Americans as well as even foreign heads of state, Snowden fled the U.S. and still lives in exile in Moscow. Returning home means instant arrest.
Stone takes us on this journey as Snowden’s mind-set subtly changes. The film is not sequential in structure. He starts out as a Patriot; a soldier in the CIA & NSA protecting his country from terrorists. But with each new deployment in Washington D.C. or Japan or Hawaii, Stone shows how Snowden realized how his software programs were increasingly used to widen the intelligence gathering to areas that had nothing to do with National Security.
Snowdon says Americans are more interested in security than freedom, especially after 911 and that gave license to the politicians to overreach. Stone shows how the pressure on Snowden takes a toll on him physically, as well as straining his relationship with Lindsay. They fight and she leaves. He constantly struggles between loyalty to his country and following orders from his superiors.
Skeptics who come to Snowden expecting an Oliver Stone heavy handed treatment skewing a story fit his preordained narrative will be surprised. Yes, he treats the NSA honchos like Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) as chillingly cold and villainous. But he is also evenhanded making Snowden’s CIA adviser, Hank Forrester, (Nicholas Cage) empathetic to Snowden’s quandary.
For the most part, the script is quiet and controlled in contrast with a few highly emotional bursts. For example, Stone had Zachary Quinto go ballistic when The Guardian is delaying publication of Snowden’s information from the documents that he copied. He gets very loud and demanding as pressure builds talking to the editor by Skype with he, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson and Gordon-Levitt all holed up in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong. Then there is the fight about trust between Snowden and Lindsay when he can’t tell her what’s going on. The tension between Snowden and Mills provides as much tension as the NSA/CIA conflict.
The acclaimed Laura Poitras HBO documentary, “Citizenfour. in many instances, creates even more drama showing the actual events, than Stone was able to re-create. It shows what a great film Poitras made. The one aspect of the Stone film that far exceeds Poitras’ work is Stone’s ability to personalize Snowden and portray the relationship/love story with Lindsay Mills. Snowden is a very private person so in interviews he carefully protects his personal life, but he allowed Stone to get inside.
Stone admits that he adds drama to the relationship story and some of the incidents leading up to the release of the secret documents because, after all, he’s making a movie, not a documentary. The Director is regarded as a film maker who puts his own spin on historical and controversial events like he did with JFK and Nixon. In this case it feels like he lets the story play out closer, though not entirely, to reality.
Many viewers will get angry because Snowden is definitely made out to be the hero of this tale. Stone says he wants the you to decide whether he is or not. Those who believe he is a traitor who fled his country rather than face the consequences of his actions will not be seeing this flick a second time. But as a piece of drama and film craft, Oliver Stone delivers a compelling story while getting great performances from two fine actors.
What are the lessons we should take away from this movie? Just blindly allowing the Government unfettered power in the name of National Security is a dangerous road to travel. Once our ability to protect our Constitutional right to privacy is lost, how do we get it back? Look for Snowden to make a surprising appearance himself in the movie. Surprising because you will be amazed at how close Gordon-Levitt’s performance mirrored the man he played.
Through this movie, Snowdon gives advice on how to protect our privacy and identity on the internet. Yes, as shown in the movie, he puts bandaids over the camera of his computer. And now Oliver Stone tapes over his computer’s camera as well. Band Aids can help protect more than cut fingers.