Few directors stamp their movies in the way that Oliver Stone does. An "Oliver Stone movie" means something in the same way a "Michael Moore documentary" does, in that you know that the filmmaker's strong voice will be inherent and will come through loud and clear on the screen in a way that seems different than most other directors. Stone has something to say, his movies have purpose, and he gives not a damn what others might think. He tackles controversial subjects and figures, and has been called everything from a "conspiracy theorist" to an "intellectual sociopath" and everything in-between. In that light, "Snowden" (opening today, Sept. 16), definitely fits snugly in the Oliver Stone film canon, and is right up his alley as far as subject matter. But some clunky dialogue, a muddled script, and some "too-on-the-nose" political soap-boxing leaves this Edward Snowden dramatization lacking the normal amount of Oliver Stone bite.
Edward Snowden of course, is now infamous, a man responsible for whistle-blowing on the CIA and the U.S. Government when he released classified data that he copied from the NSA (National Security Agency), where he worked. His disclosures in 2013 revealed massive "big brother" type programs currently in place, proving that every single person in the United States and beyond are being watched, monitored, and recorded. Every cell phone call, text, photo or online movement is being tracked, and this clearly brings up some strong moral arguments at a minimum. Some call Snowden a patriot for shining a light on these unauthorized practices, while some call him a traitor. Surely, he is a controversial figure and a target for many a conversation and/or argument.
Stone's Snowden though (played masterfully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who captures his deep drawl and mannerisms perfectly), is clearly a patriot and a champion. Secretly meeting with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and The Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), Snowden set in motion the release of this classified material, and as Stone sees it, this was an act of bravery and heroism. His take on Snowden is perfectly fine, but the story itself just lacks the drama necessary to sustain a full-length motion picture.
While the story itself is a bit cluttered and slow, the film tries balancing Snowden's story with that of his personal life. Shailene Woodley plays Snowden's girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, and the entire story feels distracting and borderline unnecessary. This seems shoe-horned into the film in order to beef up the movie, almost as if Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald knew that there wasn't quite enough there with the Snowden story alone...not enough to fill two hours anyways. This was a world of data analysis and computers, and doesn't quite lend itself to on-screen thrills. And while a lot of Snowden's findings are implied, the film does not do a good job of stating why his actions were so important, or why so many believe him to be traitorous.
The most annoying aspect of all is that the film shifts back-and-forth between a dramatization of Edward Snowden's life and a soundboard for Oliver Stone's political leanings. Characters often make hokey statements that you couldn't picture real people saying, like when Gordon-Levitt as Snowden looks out a rain-soaked window, and says (paraphrasing), "I really thought Obama was going to live up to his campaign promises." There are several moments like this where Stone's personal thoughts come through so hard and forceful, it makes you wish that he would have folded them into the story more subtly.
"Snowden" is not all bad, it just isn't all that good. A much better and more enthralling movie, Laura Poitras's documentary "CitizenFour," is much better at telling the story of Edward Snowden, and making the viewer really feel what was at stake. By the time the real Edward Snowden shows up in "Snowden," - which he does towards the end - the interest has already been lost.
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Biography
Run Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson
Co-Written & Directed by Oliver Stone ("Savages," "W.," "World Trade Center," "Any Given Sunday," "Nixon," "Natural Born Killers," "JFK," "The Doors," "Wall Street," "Platoon")
Opens locally on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016
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