Sunday 25 September 2016

Movie Review: Snowden (2016)

A biographical thriller dramatizing recent events, Snowden recreates the story of one of America's most famous whistleblowers. The film is never less than competent, but also struggles to add much that is revelatory.

It's 2013, and former CIA employee Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). Snowden is in possession of a microchip with thousands of files he stole from the National Security Agency (NSA) revealing the depth of illegal surveillance being perpetrated on the unsuspecting American public under the guise of counter terrorism. In flashback, Snowden's story is revealed. Stymied from joining the special forces due to injury, computer wizard Snowden joins the CIA where his mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) exposes him to the world of intelligence. He also meets Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), a technology wizard from an earlier era now marginalized after a whistleblowing incident.

Snowden starts a relationship with photographer, dancer and model Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and her more liberal views gradually rub off on him. Assigned to Geneva, Snowden grows disillusioned with the intelligence world after experiencing first hand how global surveillance serves the world of dirty tricks. He continues to work in intelligence as a contractor, to the detriment of his health and relationship. Back at the hotel room, reporters from The Guardian newspaper arrive, including Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). Snowden wants the newspaper to break the story, but the international manhunt has already started.

Directed by and co-written by Oliver Stone, Snowden is a relatively straightforward story told too soon. As of the film's 2016 release date, Edward Snowden is still a guest of convenience with the Russians and the true impact of his spectacular data theft is perhaps yet to be fully understood. The story of his remarkable hack and subsequent escape played out in real time on television screens and websites across the world in 2013. The wisdom of dramatizing fresh events from three years prior while the implications are still reverberating is fundamentally questionable.

Nevertheless, the story is undeniably provocative and Stone, operating well within his passion and expertise in dramas with broad political dimensions, delivers a decent package. The relationship between Snowden and Mills is the one new area that the film explores well, and the film hits its bright spots conveying Snowden trying to hold the relationship together while wrestling with increasing paranoiac discomfort. His bottled up awareness of the government machine spying on everyone takes an increasingly worrisome toll on his health, as he observes the carefree Mills, like most millennials, sharing her life on the computer, including government-questioning liberal views and uninhibited eroticism.

Less interesting are the scenes in the Hong Kong hotel room. Stone tries to wring tension from Snowden's interaction with Poitras and The Guardian reporters, but it's choppy viewing culminating with a not exactly gripping shouting match between journalists and editors across a laptop connection. The scenes with Snowden's CIA mentors and influencers in the form of Corbin O’Brian and Hank Forrester carry more promise and deserved more screen time.

While the software capabilities at the core of Snowden's growing resentment of the NSA's surveillance programs are briefly presented, this is another film where technology is deemed too complex for anything beyond a cursory description, much like The Theory Of Everything and The Imitation Game.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries the film and is fine in the title role, although the personality of Snowden as a pale-faced and introverted techno-geek does not necessarily provide the opportunity for expansive acting. Shailene Woodley gets more freedom to explore the breadth of Mills' emotions, a woman genuinely in love with a man transforming before her eyes into a tortured enigma.

Snowden contains enough of Stone's stylistic touches to maintain interest. But this is a biography that arrives too soon and carries too few surprises to register as a genuinely effective drama.

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