Note to readers: I’m aware that this particular review is a little bit late. Unfortunately, the state I live in chose to revert back to the Dark Ages and turned off all the lights this week, which rather threw out my weekly schedule (and deleted my draft for this review). Please accept this late review, and keep an eye out for the next one very soon.
Oliver Stone is one of Hollywood’s most unabashedly left-wing filmmakers, with many of his films being basically narrative versions of a Michael Moore documentary. And he’s not been shy about sharing his political views in this biopic of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. This is a movie that is far from subtle with its message, but it has its fair share of positives too. What this leads to is a flawed movie that is still worth checking out if it interests you.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film follows the story of Edward Snowden, the intelligence analyst who revealed the extent of the USA’s surveillance program. The film is framed cleverly, beginning with Snowden handing over the data he’d collected to documentary maker Laura Poitras and representatives from The Guardian. Through discussions that the journalists have with Snowden, we uncover the story of who Snowden was, how he got into the NSA and what led him to release classified information to the press in defiance of one of the world’s most powerful governments. Also covered is Snowden as a person – the slightly awkward young man, and his life of love and loss. We all know how this story ends (well, the story in the movie anyway. The real life saga of Edward Snowden is, of course, ongoing).
Scattered throughout this movie is a huge assortment of solid performances by seasoned Hollywood actors. Shailene Woodley, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Logan Marshall-Green, Scott Eastwood, Timothy Olyphant and Rhys Ifans bring a wealth of experience to this movie, and all deliver. But there is two performances in particular that I’d like to highlight, if I may. The first is the lead role, as Joseph Gordon-Levitt tackles Snowden himself. It’s a masterful performance, and Gordon-Levitt proves himself a master imitator. Everything from the voice and the way he held himself made you believe that this man was Edward Snowden, and not an actor, and I would be very surprised if Gordon-Levitt doesn’t at least enter the conversation for an Oscar nomination in the coming months.
Also worth noting is veteran auteur Nicolas Cage, who came in with a very reserved, understated and solid performance in a small supporting role. It was a nice surprise from the man who gave us The Wicker Man and Ghost Rider.
Pictured: A man capable of a reserved and understated performance. Apparently.
Along with this performance, this film does exactly what director Stone would have wanted it to do, which is that the film inspires a sense of rage and anger at the American government (both the Bush and Obama administrations) and their various agencies. Your reaction may be of a different intensity depending on your political leanings, but there is a certain way that the film portrays the government that can’t help but inspire some sense of righteous anger.
Unfortunately, this strength is also this film’s biggest weakness, as in terms of subtle messaging this is on par with being hit on the head with a large welding mallet with the words “I am a bit unhappy with you” written on it. Stone has come into this film with a very simple message – don’t trust the government, also Big Brother is watching you – and proceeds to spend the 2 hour runtime beating you with the message like you’re a small child being taught not to touch spiders. After about an hour, you’ve sort of got the idea. But the film never trusts you to really grasp the concept.
Everyone in this photo got the message! (Yep, I’m doing a political joke this week. Risky stuff)
The film is also overlong, and could have been shortened by about 20 minutes, while remaining reasonably predictable and giving you a story that, while told nicely, tells you nothing that you couldn’t otherwise glean from Wikipedia. At the end of the day, this makes for a movie that didn’t necessarily need to be made. But if you don’t know much about Snowden himself, or you are someone who wants to be immersed in the acting and the storyline, it may be something that works for you. It’s definitely not a BAD film.
3.3/5 – An unnecessary film that will still interest cinephiles and people wanting to learn more about Snowden.