Movie Review: Snowden (2016)

“The only safe place is on the run.”

1 Stars
Snowden (2016)

Snowden (2016)


Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo

Synopsis: The story of American whistleblower Edward Snowden.

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A coda to Oliver Stone’s Snowden states that the subject of his movie has been described as a “hero”, a “whistleblower”, a “dissident”, a “patriot” and a “traitor.”   Whichever description you think best describes Snowden will no doubt determine how you rate the movie.   One thing is for sure: Stone leaves us in no doubt about where he stands on the issue.   But his one-sided, reverential portrayal of Snowden does the film – and the man from whom it takes its title – no favours at all, and, rather than encouraging debate, will merely serve to polarise opposing camps even further.

Jumping back and forth in time from 2004 to 2013, the film charts Snowden’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt – 50/50, Lincoln) history with the CIA, which he joined after an injury cut short his service with the Special Forces.   Snowden excels at his training, and is mentored by Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans – The 51st State, The Amazing Spider-Man), the man who employed him.   O’Brian becomes an increasingly sinister figure as Snowden’s doubts over his role in the NSA’s illegal surveillance of American citizens grow, until, at one point, his enormous face looms over his protégé from a gigantic wall-to-ceiling screen like a suspicious God just waiting for the opportunity to get all wrathful.   Stone lapses into these moments of heavy-handed symbolism every now and then, and each time he does he distances us a little further from the point he’s trying to make.

Snowden’s mounting paranoia, which threatens to destroy his relationship with his girlfriend – a completely wasted Shailene Woodley (Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars), who’s given nothing to do but throw emotional obstacles in Snowden’s direction whenever Stone thinks we need a break from all the technological shenanigans – grows in line with his increasing understanding of the scope of the government-sanctioned snooping.   It’s not often government agents are portrayed as men of integrity rendered paranoid by their instruments of power, and while Snowden raises interesting questions regarding the pressures under which such people operate he goes nowhere with them.

While the film fully recreates the timetable of events surrounding Snowden’s release of the documents, it asks few questions about whether he was right to do what he did.   Is committing a crime acceptable if it’s done in order to uncover an even bigger crime?   The US government claims most of the information stolen by Snowden related to military secrets which could have seriously threatened national security had they fallen into the wrong hands,  but Stone makes no mention of this in his movie.   In fact, he’s so intent on condemning the US government at every opportunity that he allows the more interesting opportunities to explore issues raised by Snowden’s actions to pass unheeded.

It could be that Stone simply chose to simplify the story in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and Snowden does at least keep a spotlight focused on the illegal covert activities in which most governments undoubtedly partake.   But the  sad truth is that, to date, the movie has met with widespread apathy in the States from a population that simply doesn’t seem to care that it’s government was – and, let’s face it, probably still is, in one form or another – spying on them.   The story was always a bigger deal amongst the media than it was the average man or woman in the street and, in the U.K., the passive manner in which the population recently accepted the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (better known as the Snoopers Charter) suggests the film will meet with no greater success here.   After all, who wants to watch Snowden when Office Christmas Party is released on the same day?

(Reviewed 1st December 2016)





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