Before director Oliver Stone’s SNOWDEN states its position, you probably thought of Edward Snowden as either a criminal or a saint. But it’s possible to have cognitive dissonance when it comes to the controversial figure – he could be both. His story has been publicized everywhere in the media, but depending on the outlet, facts may have been spun to fit an agenda. For people like myself who didn’t quite vibe with the low-energy Oscar-winning documentary CITIZENFOUR, this electric dramatization is exactly how its titular whistleblower’s story should be told – with crackling energy, resonance and urgency. And after it’s over, I will defy you not to put a band aid over your laptop’s camera.
When we first meet Edward (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he’s secretly being interviewed by documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) in a Hong Kong hotel room. It’s this film’s wrap around story-telling device that works to varying degrees of effect. Electromagnetic block out curtains are drawn. Cell phones are put into the microwave. Pillows are piled next to the door to muffle the sound of Edward unburdening himself. He didn’t used to be this paranoid, but thanks to his time working for the U.S. government, he won’t take any risks. As told through flashbacks, he began as a rather wide-eyed optimist, valuing patriotism over rebellion. However, his exuberance for serving his country morphs into terror upon learning the system set up to keep us safe is more harmful than good. The rest, as they say, is history – one that’s recreated with panache by an activist auteur.
SNOWDEN is the best film Stone has done in the two decades since ANY GIVEN SUNDAY. While this story has a lot in common with Stone’s heartbreaking masterpiece BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (mainly the disillusioned patriot at the center of the tale), SNOWDEN manages to set itself apart. Stone has embraced digital filmmaking differently than other directors, making it a unique experience. There’s an immediacy to the way he moves the camera. Though the film clocks in at 2 hours and 14 minutes, it never feels it. There’s a snappy, forward momentum to the way editors Alex Marquez and Lee Percy cut action-driven segments, like the Rubik’s Cube smuggling sequence, or the field operations in Geneva, along with the more intimate ones, like those between Edward and girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley, who is a tad underserved playing a stereotypical long-suffering girlfriend role).
Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald have adapted the dense source material (books from both Luke Harding and Anatoly Kucherena) in the best of ways. They get to the heart of how we should empathize with our conflicted hero. Anytime Edward has tech explained to him, it’s not only put into layman’s terms, but it’s also shown in a way that’s easily digestible to the audience. The sequence where a computer analyst (Ben Schnetzer) explains how the government tracks people is filled with eye-popping visuals and mind-blowing concepts. We learn it’s not like they are watching one suspect – it’s the Faberge Organics Shampoo effect, meaning it’s that subject and everyone they’ve ever been in contact with.
SNOWDEN’s effectiveness can best be quantified by the helplessness you feel once Peter Gabriel’s “The Veil” plays over the end credits. Stone offers very few answers as to where to go from here, or how to funnel your outrage into something productive. Technology is king and, like all good weapons, even the good aspects can be perverted into something evil.
4 out of 5
SNOWDEN opens on September 16.