Regardless of what your stance is on mass data collection supervised by Uncle Sam, Oliver Stone’s engrossing political thriller Snowden raises some extremely provocative and timely questions about our right to privacy, the ever evolving war on terror, and how trustworthy our government has been and can be in the future in regards to these types of surveillance programs. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very strong as Edward Snowden and there isn’t a performance in the entire cast that’s not well rounded and effective; Rhys Ifans has a casually chilly demeanor which he exhibits to maximum effect as Snowden’s boss, Nicolas Cage is perfectly cast as the old spy who has been sent to the basement, and Shailene Woodley is both natural and extremely easy on the eyes as Snowden’s long suffering and always-in-the-dark girlfriend.
The film uses the Citizenfour interview by doc filmmaker Laura Poitras (motherly Melissa Leo) and Guardian newspaper writer Glenn Greenwald (easily angered Zachary Quinto) as its entry point, folding back in time to Snowden’s discharge from military service, his journey through various governmental branches, and eventual hiring as a data analyst. Working for various subcontractors, he got a bird’s eye view of what our post-9/11 espionage world is like, and even had the chance to build some of those systems. It’s totally wild to see how far the government has progressed with the digital monitoring of its citizens and everyone else across the rest of the world. Starting out as an uptight conservative and ending up a liberal defector, Snowden saw things he wished he hadn’t, and for various reasons, felt that he had to tell the world what was going on, thus resulting in his permanent exile in Russia. The busy narrative uses Snowden’s complicated relationship with his girlfriend as an emotional through line, presenting a compelling portrait of a man caught between what he thinks he needs to do and how others are expecting him to act.
The thing that I noticed the most while watching Snowden was how eerily prescient the 1998 film, Enemy of the State, from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott, has become. Researched and written in the mid to late 90’s and three years before the Twin Towers would fall, that film imagined a scenario where the U.S. government is ready to employ a far-reaching and questionable policy called the Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act, which is essentially what the Patriot Act would become a few years down the road. The technology shown in Enemy of the State is EXACTLY THE SAME SORT OF STUFF being used in real life today, as depicted in films like Snowden, which actually break down the official programs being used by big brother. Even some of the stuff glimpsed at during Scott’s sci-fi genre-bender Deja Vu feel like they have been sampled from reality.
By the end of watching Snowden, and due in no small part to the dynamic if measured camerawork by digital ace Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Rush), you’ll have a great sense of what is capable due to the work being done in various underground compounds and secret spy bases all over the world. One of the best sequences in the film is a visual approximation of what it’s like to put a trace on a phone call to one person, and how that one person can spiral into millions of people by the end of the digital process. With whiz-bang ease, so much information can be culled at a moment’s notice, that it’s hard not to be equal parts impressed and alarmed by what’s able to be achieved.
Stone’s film, which he co-wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald, is engaging at all times, frequently incensed by the story being told, and yet, it never went for the jugular in the way that the best, most long-lasting films from this proudly defiant and troublemaking auteur have done in the past. Which is fine. Stone has become a different filmmaker over the last 10 years, which apparently, many people cannot accept. Stone hasn’t “lost it,” but rather, after his sensational and aesthetically groundbreaking run of films during the 1980’s and especially the 1990’s, he’s become more sedate, especially after the grand ambitions of his tour de force historical epic Alexander back in 2004, which for my money, is still one of the best achievements in the sword and sandal genre that’s ever been mounted. World Trade Center, which I feel is his John Ford movie, is wildly underrated, celebrating a country that he so often took to task on a variety of issues; in this film he paid tribute to the notion of sudden heroism, resulting in an emotionally resonant motion picture that scaredy-cat viewers dismissed as “too soon” when it was first released.
And while I thought W. could have been better and different and more scalpel-sharp, over repeated viewings, I’ve come to find it a delicious black comedy of political buffoonery. Wall Street 2 was a bit of a let-down but still entertaining, but I absolutely loved his sexy and stony marijuana actioner Savages; he made his Tony Scott adventure with that one, even hiring Scott’s longtime cinematographer Daniel Mindel to call the shots, resulting in one of the slickest looking films of his career. And with Snowden, Stone is clearly conveying a ton of anger towards both the Bush and Obama administrations, while reminding audiences that he’s incapable of making an uninteresting movie. I’d actually wager a guess and say that this is one of the most anti-government movies that has been released in years, going beyond the term liberal and entering into its own new realm. It’s no surprise that indie distributor Open Road were the ones to take this on and that there are about 20 people listed as producers from various overseas entities in various capacities; no major studio would have the balls to put their logo on this one.
Review by Nick Clement