SNOWDEN – A MOVIE REVIEW by Liz Warner
Director/screenwriter Oliver Stone’s (and Kieran Fitzgerald’s) latest movie, Snowden, might not be the best of his films, though I confess to being partial to Stone’s prolific works. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2016 and was released in the United States on September 16.
The story is well known as we’ve lived the history. Edward Snowden, our hero in the literary if not political sense, is a high school drop out who gained a specialty in cyber with the CIA and NSA, the latter from which he purloined a trove of digital data, which, among other things, revealed the overreaching programs the agency and its British counterpart had been keeping under wraps, which harvested, collated, and stored the cellphone and Internet records of virtually everyone. After Snowden gave the data to British reporters in Hong Kong and revealed his identity, his passport was revoked by a furious government, leaving Snowden effectively stranded in Moscow, en route to Ecuador. He has remained in Moscow since.
Snowden, as in Laura Poitras’ 2014 award-winning documentary, Citizenfour, begins with Snowden [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] in a cramped Hong Kong hotel room relating his story to three journalists, Laura Poitras [Melissa Leo], Glenn Greenwald [Zachary Quinto], and Ewen MacAskill [Tom Wilkinson]. Through non-jarring use of flashbacks and flash forwards, Stone relates Snowden’s story from his Army Reserve days where he was administratively discharged due to leg injuries, to his early career with the CIA in Geneva, to his final gig with the NSA in Hawaii, through the period where he was a fugitive hiding amongst refugees in Hong Kong, and ending with his being granted a temporary visa to remain in Russia.
The film makes good use of the visually striking locations and if anything, understates the digital components of the story. The scenes where Snowden downloads the data and nearly gets caught in the act is tense enough. The suspense is intensified with his final exit from the NSA facility with a Rubik’s Cube, where he has hidden the data-filled computer chip. Walking through the electronic detection system on the way out, Snowden tosses the Cube to a security guard, challenging him to solve it. The guard attempts it, walking the Cube undetected to the other side, tossing it back to Snowden.
Stone humanizes the story by delving deeply into Snowden’s relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills [Shailene Woodley], who he met online while with the CIA. The two move in together, but their relationship becomes strained with his frequent absences on clandestine missions which he cannot discuss. In the end, he advises her to visit her parents before he leaves for Hong Kong, though the two are ultimately reunited in Russia.
Perhaps the most memorable line was delivered by an agent who educated Snowden on the realities of life in the contemporary intelligence community: “This isn’t about terrorism. Terrorism is the excuse.”
Overall, Stone tells the story in an evenhanded manner, though it’s sympathetic to Snowden (who has appeared online supporting the film.) Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a credible and creditable Edward Snowden, undoubtedly, a difficult role.
As a “based on a true story,” one naturally wonders how much of it is accurate. (Snowden himself isn’t saying.) Presumably, the ancillary characters are highly fictionalized, along with details about Snowden’s removal of the data, but overall, the film comports with what is publicly known about Snowden’s tenure.
While personally, I found the love interest angle a bit trite, it was surely a good move on Stone’s part to include it to the extent he did. It had to be challenging, given the characters are based on living people, one of whom never bargained for notoriety.
So, too, I personally would’ve preferred to see more of the technical angle, but screens and keyboards are intrinsically difficult to show in a manner that sustains the interest of the general public. Stone clearly recognized that.
Lastly, I would’ve appreciated seeing more about the escape to the refuge camps in Hong Kong, along with the legal machinations that ultimately got Snowden to Russia. Again, legal complexities can be tricky to portray on film, but I do think it was a lost opportunity to amp up the tension and suspense even further.
Noteworthy is that the movie opened concurrently with a petition drive by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch to request that President Obama pardon Snowden. Almost immediately thereafter, a Congressional Committee letter and accompanying report was released which requested the president not do so.
Snowden is unquestionably timely.