Tag Archives: Edward Snowden

Snowden (2016)

snowden

I was really looking forward to Snowden for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s directed by Oliver Stone. Secondly, because I’m fascinated by Edward Snowden’s story and feel like I already know a lot about it, and was interested to see what kind of take Stone would have on the man and his story.

Oliver Stone doesn’t always make great movies, but he’s a director who I will always watch because of his track record. And for the record, I quite liked his last movie, Savages. When it comes to grit and drama, there are few American directors in his class.

The verdict? Snowden is a very solid movie, but sadly it’s nowhere near a great one. I might even call it a little disappointing, if only because I was expecting a lot more.

For those who have been living under a rock for the last three years, Snowden is a biographical film about former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who shocked the world in 2013 when he stole and gave to the media classified documents exposing that the US government is conducting illegal mass surveillance on not just foreign countries but their own people.

The film doesn’t tell us much about Snowden’s birth or family, instead choosing to follow him starting from his early years in the military. I don’t know how accurate the film is when it comes to certain details about Snowden’s character and history, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Stone had made up a lot of stuff (his track record is a little iffy).

In this film, Snowden is portrayed as a surprisingly normal guy (I was thinking socially awkward, reclusive, arrogant). Well, apart from the fact he’s a tech genius. He starts off as a patriot with relatively conservative political leanings, and ends up as a liberal hero some call a traitor to his own country. And make no mistake, Snowden is presented as a hero in the film. I would have preferred some ambiguity because these are clearly some very complex issues here, but it’s obvious which side Stone stands on. That said, I do appreciate that Snowden’s heroic image isn’t stuffed down our throats all the way (at least not until the end).

For what is supposedly a “political thriller”, Snowden is relatively tame in terms of action, and there’s also a lot less suspense than I had anticipated. The film is never boring, but I expected the film to spend more time on how he stole the classified information and how he escaped from Hong Kong to Russia. The latter, in particular, was dealt with rather quickly and without any drama, which I felt was a missed opportunity.

What the film does well is in portraying the relationship between Snowden and his long-term girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley. It’s a central part of his life and the source of most of the film’s drama. The two of them have surprisingly good chemistry and their performances are elevated as a result.

Speaking of performances, Gordon-Levitt is phenomenal as Snowden. I was one of the many who raised an eyebrow when I heard he was cast, given the seeming lack of physical resemblance. Seriously, I don’t know how they did it, but he is totally Snowden in the film. Apart from getting the voice right, he gets the look right too. There were a few shots, especially in the Hong Kong hotel, where the similarities were stunning. Not sure if Gordon-Levitt will get an Oscar nomination for the performance because the film hasn’t been received that well, though I would certainly not be annoyed if he received the honour.

Apart from Gordon-Levitt and Woodley, the rest of the cast is solid too. Chameleon Melissa Leo plays documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, while Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson play the journalists who break Snowden’s story. Timothy Oliphant plays a CIA agent, Scott Eastwood is an NSA supervisor, and Ben Schnetzer, the apprentice wizard in Warcraft, portrays a tech wizard this time. The one casting choice I didn’t like was Nicholas Cage, in a small role as a teacher in the CIA, because he’s Nicholas Cage, and it’s hard for me to take anything seriously when I see his face these days. I was also not a fan of Snowden’s CIA mentor, played by Rhys Ifans. The performance itself was fine, but the character was too much of a caricature.

And I don’t know if this counts as a spoiler—it’s not a plot spoiler—but skip this paragraph if you don’t want to find out. Anyway, I don’t like how the real Edward Snowden makes an appearance at the end of the film. Throughout the entire movie he is Joseph Gordon Levitt, but this changes in the final minutes, first with protesters holding photos of the real Snowden, and then the appearance of Snowden himself. It takes you out of the reality the film had built over the last two hours. More importantly, it also reminds you that Gordon-Levitt doesn’t actually look or sound as much like Snowden as you thought he did during the film.

In sum, Snowden gets just a moderately above-average grade from me. I had expected an intelligent, exciting thriller (think Argo) that tackles Snowden’s actions and the consequences of his actions—from the both sides of the debate. Instead, I got a milder, one-sided version that failed to make the most of its opportunities.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Citizenfour (2014)

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For a couple of months in mid-2013, my daily reporting work revolved around Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who spilled the beans on the unfathomable level of US surveillance on its own citizens and people around the world. The story was first broken by The Guardian after Snowden contacted journalists Gleen Greenwald and MacASkill, but what few people knew at the time was that there was a documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, hanging around throughout the entire scandal.

Citizenfour is the product of all those hours Poitras, who won the Best Documentary Oscar for it in February, spent on the Snowden affair. Poitras was there when Snowden was hiding away at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, and captured large amounts of footage that was condensed down into some captivating interviews and conversations for the purposes of the film.

To be fair, the project pretty much fell into her lap because it was Snowden who first contacted her back in January 2013, in an exchange that formed the opening scenes of the film. She had already been working on a doco about post-9/11 government surveillance, and Snowden felt she would be the perfect candidate to record the political atomic bomb he was about to drop.

The Snowden affair has polarised the public. There are those who hail him as a hero for uncovering unconscionable conduct on the part of the US government, while others call him a traitor and want him punished for treason. Putting aside personal beliefs on what he did was right or wrong or 50 shades of grey (I have mixed emotions about it myself), Citizenfour has also polarised the public. There are those who found it absolutely compelling, while others were bored out of their minds.

I can see where both sides are coming from. I think this is a film where the viewer needs to have some level of interest in the subject, be passionate about the ideas behind it, and perhaps even know the background enough to realise how remarkable the footage is they’re seeing on screen. Those exclusive up-close-and-personal interviews and footage of Snowden are gold, and Poitras knows it. She obviously has an agenda, or else she wouldn’t have been making a doco about government surveillance, though she does a good job of letting the footage speak for itself rather than ram a political message down the audiences’ throats. By crafting the story chronologically, the narrative unveils almost like a political thriller, and the explanations are simple enough, for the most part, that viewers should be able to understand, or at least have a basic grasp of, the surveillance concepts described throughout the film.

On the other hand, if you don’t really know about the story or if government surveillance doesn’t bother you one way or another, Citizenfour could come across as a bit of a drag. There are typed conversations re-enacted on computer screens, which rarely works in fictional movies, and long conversations about technical things and legal ramifications. Even if they recognise that it is a well-made film about an important topic, audiences could find sitting through all the court hearings toward the end too much to handle.

For me, the interest came less from the topic and more about the subject, Snowden himself. From the moment his identity became public, Snowden has been written about ad nauseam, but this film offers the first real opportunity for people to decide for themselves what kind of person he is. And honestly, I think the film confirms my suspicions that there’s just something off about the guy. He’s clearly intelligent and articulate, and I don’t doubt he believes what he is doing is right, though Snowden does come across as someone with a messiah complex that’s not too far off from the vibe of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. You just have to wonder about his motivations when you know he had the foresight to contact a documentary filmmaker months before he knew the whole thing would blow up.

Having said that, I like him a lot more now after having watched John Oliver’s recent interview of him in Moscow (the Snowden section begins from about the 13:40 mark).

Anyway, Citizenfour is a film everyone should see because of what it is about, but Poitras has not made it a film for everyone. While I acknowledge its importance, the skilful filmmaking, and marvel at the footage of Snowden the film managed to capture, Citizenfour was a relative disappointment for me, especially given all the critical accolades and the fact that it was regarded by the Academy as the best doco of 2014. I never found it boring like some others have, but the film was not quite as fascinating or as thrilling as I had hoped it would be. Perhaps the Oliver Stone dramatization currently in the works, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden and Melissa Leo as Poitras, will be able to bridge the shortfalls.

3.5 stars out of 5