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1 review, 1 rating



Snowden
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Antitrust"
3 stars

If ever there was a story that was tailor-made to be brought to the screen by cinematic provocateur Oliver Stone, it is that of Edward Snowden. After all, the story of a super-patriotic young man who slowly has a shadowy world of corruption and unchecked power exposed to him and who gradually becomes radicalized in the process not only bears similarities to any number of his previous works but also has any number of parallels with his own personal story to boot. Given that, the thing about “Snowden” that is so surprising is how inert the whole thing is. Oh, it is well-made and well-acted to be sure and is certainly better than many of Stone’s recent cinematic missteps of late but it is just missing that certain spark that his best and most galvanizing films have had—the thing that made them so compulsively watchable as cinema even if you rejected Stone’s particular viewpoints. The result is a film that comes across as more dutiful than dangerous and which never feels as necessary as one might expect it to given the combination of subject matter and filmmaker on display here.

When we first meet Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in 2004, he is a true-blue patriotic type who joins the Army Reserve because of 9/11 but simply doesn’t have the physical ability to make it as a conventional soldier—indeed, his body takes such a beating during training that all it takes is jumping off of his bunk to finally shatter his leg and destroy that particular dream for good. However, what he may lack in physical stamina, he more than makes up for in intellect and since the next big battlefield is expected to be in cyberspace fending off attacks from hackers from China and Russia, he has what it takes be a top soldier in those potential conflicts. He starts out in the CIA—despite unwisely telling future mentor Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans) that it would be “cool” to have top-level security clearances—and impresses enough people with his computer skills that he is soon reassigned to the National Security Agency and sent to such locations as Switzerland, Japan and Hawaii to help run their data-gathering programs, ostensibly to pick up potential terrorist chatter that would help to prevent a future 9/11.

As Snowden soon learns, there is a lot more going on to what he is doing than those theoretically noble goals. Despite not having the proper clearance to even know of its existence, a colleague shows him a secret CIA computer program known as XKeyscore, which is basically a supercharged Google that takes users to anything online, whether it has been made public or not. He also learns that not only can they access any computer or cell phone and everything contained within with only a few keystrokes, it is all being done with the tacit permission of the major Internet communication companies, all of whom have joined in with the government to allow them to potentially spy on their users without their knowledge. With every new revelation, Snowden is more and more horrified but is at a loss as to what to do—not only is he unable to tell anyone about what he is seeing, not even loyal and more liberal-minded girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), but he is personally torn between the part of him that is shocked at his discoveries and the part that is still convinced that it is somehow all for the greater good. Eventually, even he can no longer believe the lies that he has been telling himself and decides that the world needs to know what he has learned, no matter what the personal cost may be, and this is what leads him to an anonymous hotel room in Hong Kong where, having unleashed a series of devastating leaks, he explains to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and a pair of journalists (Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson) why he did what he did in a series of scenes that serve as the framework for the story.

The idea driving “Snowden”—that not only was our own government essentially spying on its own citizens without any real kind of oversight in the name of “freedom” (at one point in the film, Snowden discovers that there is twice as much data-gathering going on in the U.S. than in Russi) but that we tacitly allowed it to happen because of our ever-increasing reliance on modern technology—is a disturbing and provocative one and one can imagine a powerful movie being made about it, perhaps even by the Oliver Stone who once made such bold and audacious works as “Born on the Fourth of July,” “JFK” and “Natural Born Killers.” And yet, little of the righteous anger and horror that one might have readily expected to find is actually on display here. Instead, the screenplay that he and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald have come up with feels more world-weary than anything else. Startling revelations about the immense power that the government wields in regards to how they gather intelligence and the potentially devastating ways in which they wield it (from vaporizing potential terrorists from half a world away via drones to using gleaned information to push unsuspecting people into supplying information of their own) but as presented here, they will hardly inspire anything more than a shrug from most viewers. Stone’s presentation of the material just lacks the sort of fire that one might expect and too often feels as if he is deliberately trying to play it safe, which is kind of an odd approach to a film about a figure as admittedly controversial as Edward Snowden. There is also little sense of the kind of pressure and paranoia that Snowden must have felt both before and in the immediate aftermath of making his discoveries public—Stone’s approach to the material is just a little too calm and even-handed for its own good. Despite the relevance of the material on hand, it is presented in such an offhanded manner that it generates all the tension of an outdated cheeseball technothriller like “The Net” or “Antitrust.”

The closest thing that the film has to a saving grace is that Stone has been able to get a bunch of good performances from his strong cast, oftentimes in defiance of the thin material that they have been given to work with. As Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a better job of charting Snowden’s path from gung-ho patriot to someone willing to take such a powerful stand against the government he once truly believed in that the screenplay while making someone who is often thought of solely in symbolic terms into a human being. As the loyal girlfriend who finds herself increasingly at odds with Snowden’s career and the damage that it seems to be wreaking on him, Shailene Woodley doesn’t quite make the impression that she has in some of her previous performances—though this can at least in part be attributed to Stone’s general weakness in developing female characters—but she does play nicely off of Gordon-Levitt in their scenes together. As Snowden’s CIA mentor, Rhys Ifans is the highlight of the large supporting cast and the scene in which he appears before Snowden like a terrifying vision to explain just how much he knows about his protege is one of the few moments of genuine frisson to be had in the entire film. And for those of you scoring such things at home, Nicolas Cage turns up in a few early scenes as a CIA vet whose plans for an information-gathering system that didn’t simply grab at everything in front of it were scuttled and left him relegated to a back office filled with old spying technologies like the Enigma—these are some of the best scenes in the film, both for Cage’s surprisingly understated performance and for making the point that the U.S. government utilizing technological advances for the purpose of spying is hardly a new development.

The great filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once stated that the best way to critique a movie was to go out and make another movie and indeed, a film that stands as a perfect critique of “Snowden” already exists in the form of the 2014 documentary “Citizenfour”—in fact, this is the film that we see Laura Poitras shooting in the framing device. Watching that film, you not only come away from it legitimately shocked and surprised by the revelations about just how thoroughly our once-cherished notions of privacy have been violated but you can find yourself debating whether or not Snowden himself should be considered a noble whistle-blower or a troublemaker who threatened national security just because he could. By comparison, “Snowden” just feels a little too safe and familiar for its own good. If the film had worked, you would emerge from the theater too terrified and paranoid to turn on your phone and computer for a long time afterwards. That is not the case here and while there are some good and interesting moments and performances to be had, “Snowden” just never quite resonates in the way that it should.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=28676&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/16/16 09:05:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/18/16 Langano Lacks intensity, expected more from Stone. 3 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  16-Sep-2016 (R)
  DVD: 20-Dec-2016

UK
  N/A

Australia
  16-Sep-2016
  DVD: 20-Dec-2016




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