SNOWDEN, drama, rated R; Regal Stadium 14 and Violet Crown; 3 chiles
Edward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s secret blanket surveillance program of American citizens, is still living in Russia. He has said he would be willing to return home to face trial, but only with a guarantee that the trial be fair and public. To some, he’s a traitor. To others, he’s a hero. To most, he’s a cipher.
Oliver Stone’s new movie, which labels itself “a dramatization of actual events,” sets out to fill in the human dimensions of this polarizing figure, and to show the arc of his journey from military-family Ayn Randian conservative to a man willing to risk his life and his citizenship to expose what he sees as a betrayal of basic American principles.
There’s an underplayed quality to Stone’s film, which will come as a surprise and perhaps a disappointment to moviegoers familiar with some of the director’s showier past work ( JFK, Nixon, Born on the
Fourth of July). But this lighter touch seems to go with the character of Ed Snowden, a computer geek who dropped out of high school but still managed to be the smartest guy in most rooms. Snowden is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception), who spent some time in Moscow talking to his subject and absorbing his voice and mannerisms. He does such a good job of internalizing his man that when, at the end of the film, Stone introduces an appearance of the real Snowden, the transition is virtually seamless.
Stone frames his account with the filming of the 2014 Laura Poitras-directed, Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour (that title being the handle Snowden used in contacting the filmmaker). Poitras (Melissa Leo) and her colleague, the journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) wait for Snowden in the Hong Kong airport, identify him by the Rubik’s Cube he carries, and spirit him away to a room in the Mira Hotel, where they and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) debrief him, film him, and try to figure out a strategy for the release of this incendiary material to the public.
We meet young Snowden in full military gear, a gung-ho soldier who enlisted in response to 9/11 for Special Forces, until the physical punishment of training broke his frail body and he had to settle on another way to serve his country. That path was intelligence, and soon he is at the CIA’s Virginia training center, where his genius performance attracts the sponsorship of Corbin O’Brian (a superb Rhys Ifans). He also makes a friend and adviser of Hank Forrester (a refreshingly understated Nicolas Cage), an aging and disillusioned CIA former whiz kid.
The movie’s strongest investment in the humanization of Snowden comes through romance. On a geek-oriented dating website he meets Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). She’s a photographer and a liberal who takes him to an anti-Iraq war rally and rails against the corruption of that misbegotten adventure. Snowden, with the mild smugness of an intelligence insider, disagrees with her position, but there’s a spark, and they eventually fall in love. The space Stone devotes to their growing relationship can sometimes feel like a distraction from the main event, but it serves the purpose of showing us a more rounded, more human dimension to the person we have known primarily from news headlines.
Said main event is Snowden’s pilgrim’s progress from staunch subscriber to the Bush administration’s party line, and unswerving believer in his country’s intelligence mission, to discomfort, doubt, disillusion, and finally an act of principled treason. The narrative is persuasive and riveting, but delivered in a low-key way that eschews the standard pulsepounding, palm-sweating devices of the international spy thriller. Snowden is no Jason Bourne, and there is no dodging of mysterious black sedans chasing him down Hong Kong alleys, nor a ticking countdown of the LED on a devastating explosive device. The closest the movie comes to that kind of suspense is Snowden’s downloading of the purloined files onto a chip while his superiors are gathered in plain sight in the next glass cubicle, and his spiriting the material out of the building.
But this slow-cooked pacing is not without tension of its own. One of Stone’s most arresting visuals is a scene in which Snowden, in a secure room, meets via video with O’Brian, in which Ifans’ face appears on a giant, wall-size screen like an avuncular Big Brother. O’Brian offers Snowden advice, philosophy, a chilling warning, and shocking evidence of the extent to which his life is being monitored.
You won’t leave the theater with any doubts as to where Oliver Stone stands on the hero/villain question, but you will leave with a much fuller sense of who Ed Snowden was, who he is, and why he took the life-changing, world-changing path he chose. His native country has revoked his passport and branded him a traitor, and he languishes in Moscow under the dubious protection of Vladimir Putin. But his government has since passed laws and reformed policies to reflect the light that Snowden brought to bear on some of its abuses of constitutional principles. — Jonathan Richards
I cannot tell a lie: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Love in the time of surveillance: Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley