From contributing film critic Andrew Gaudion
An Oliver Stone joint is one that comes with an agenda, and it isn’t one that you will always necessarily agree with. Not that he cares. Of recent years, Stone has a been a little quiet on the feature film front, falling out of favour in Hollywood due to his strong-minded views and conspiracy theories. Yet, he has produced many a great film about controversial figures across his 30 plus years writing, producing and directing motion pictures. His latest focus is Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower of the American government’s surveillance techniques in 2013. He is a figure who has sparked many heated discussions on government position, and on whether his actions were justified, but for Stone there is no argument; Snowden is an American hero, and once again, it doesn’t matter what you think.
The film uses Snowden’s (here played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meeting with a group of journalists from The Guardian in Hong Kong as its spine, with flashbacks displaying key events as he lays out his story to these reporters, ready to blow the lid on the morally and ethically questionable practices of America’s intelligence agencies. We see him move from his pro-Bush sensibilities during his short-lived time in the Army, before an injury forces him to make the decision to strive for a job in the intelligence services. It is this look behind the curtain that shakes his faith in the intentions and protocols of his country, so much so that it leads him to make the decision to commit treason.
The main hurdle that Snowden faces is the fact that we live in a world where Laura Poitras’ outstanding documentary Citizenfour exists; an incredible procedural doc that lays out the intricacies and complexities of Snowden’s situation in a way which is easy to consume, and quietly, powerfully, startling. This being Stone means that we aren’t going to receive a demonstration of events that is all that refined. We get villainous turns from the likes of Timothy Olyphant and Rhys Ifans (as well as Nic Cage as an educator of cyberwarfare), spiky arguments, shouty journalists and sustained scenes of suspense. He certainly makes it cinematic, but subtle is something Snowden is not.
There are many aspects of Stone’s take on the Snowdon tale that work very well. Gordon-Levitt delivers a very well measured performance, reserved in his delivery and doing very well to put across a portrayal that is very convincing and commanding. And, like Citizenfour, Stone does very well to deliver the intricacies and ramifications of America’s surveillance policies in a way which is very easy to digest. Visually it is also constantly arresting, with Stone once again playing with several different film formats, with stunning work yet again from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire, Rush), often producing scenes of startling tension, even from something as mundane as information loading on to a memory stick.
What lets Snowden down is its screenplay. It is often very over-dramatized, and at times feels quite ridiculous, with characters sneering over webcams, leading to a final act that is so committed to one side of the argument that it just comes across as overwrought rather than all that politically charged. The subplot involving Snowden’s girlfriend also doesn’t quite operate in the way the film wants it to. We’re supposed to see Edward’s relationship with Shailene Woodley’s Lindsay Mills as something that he stands to lose, something he cherishes, yet most of the scenes we see between the two of them often display how bad they are for each other, thus resulting in a depiction of a relationship that is more annoying than as a justification for some of his actions.
Come the final scenes of Snowden, in which the actual man himself pops up, it is very clear that this film never had any interest in delivering a probing account of its subject. This is hero worship through and through, and while that robs the film of a great deal of dramatic potential, we probably shouldn’t have expected anything else from a director like Stone. The man with an agenda strikes again, not one with an interest in displaying a balanced argument on this individual. What he has produced here is a film that is never dull, often very arresting and led by a strong lead performance, but ultimately offers very little to the discussion over Edward Snowden. Nothing to blow a whistle over.(3 / 5)
(Photos copyright: Endgame Entertainment, Vendian Entertainment, KrautPack Entertainment)