CITIZENFOUR, THE CRITICALLY acclaimed, award-winning documentary about what are now referred to, like the title of a Robert Ludlum novel, as ‘The Snowden Revelations’, is a hard act to follow, but Oliver Stone has had a good crack at it, and the result is Snowden, based on the books Time of the Octopus, by Anatoly Kucherena, and The Snowden Files, by Luke Harding.
In 2013, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets with the Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in Hong Kong to discuss the release of classified information regarding illegal mass surveillance conducted by the American National Security Agency. Snowden describes, and we see through flashbacks, his discharge from the army in 2004 after a doctor told him he was ‘walking around on two broken legs’ (the first of many hammy lines) and his subsequent enlistment at the CIA. Deputy Director Corbin O’Brian, played by a virtually moustache-twirling Rhys Ifans, determines that Snowden’s answers would not ordinarily be good enough to qualify him for the CIA, but that these are extraordinary times. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the early scenes involving Edward Snowden doing that which he does best––that is, programming––Stone shows a wholehearted subscription to the Swordfish formula, which effectively boils down to playing loud synth music, presumably in an effort to make the unglamorous task of entering long, incomprehensible strings of code into a computer screen interesting and cool to the uninitiated.
Stone and the writers are at pains to point out early on in the film, and in numerous different ways, that Snowden was––is––a patriot and a conservative who had always wanted to serve his country. There are those who believe his actions were opportunistic, or driven by a desire for fame, and it seems Stone determined Snowden’s patriotism was something well worth hammering home, and it’s clumsily done. Of course, his liberal sweetheart Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) will soon melt his cold, conservative heart, perhaps inspiring the whistleblowing that he’s famous for.
In the early scenes involving Edward Snowden doing that which he does best––that is, programming––Stone shows a wholehearted subscription to the Swordfish formula, which effectively boils down to playing loud synth music, presumably in an effort to make the unglamorous task of entering long, incomprehensible strings of code into a computer screen interesting and cool to the uninitiated. (Alex Gibney’s excellent Zero Days, by contrast, does its viewers the service of explaining how programming works and why it’s interesting.) And while Snowden does a decent enough job of explaining precisely what mass surveillance involves––how, for instance, the NSA uses it for ‘economic, political and social’ reasons––the computer visualisations aren’t simply unnecessary––they’re odd. Lines criss-cross a world map like an in-flight map of your plane’s progress, connecting various people to––bizarrely––uplifting orchestral tones that is completely unsuitable. As a result the mass surveillance that Snowden and Stone are condemning seems more like a cheerful Cerebro, tucked away in the basement of a bald mutant in New York, rather than some sinister, many-tentacled entity with access to your living rooms. If someone at the CIA is plausibly watching me have a cup of tea and tap away at my keyboard, I shouldn’t be expected to cheer.
This particular problem pervades the film. The atmosphere doesn’t seem to fit what’s being said. Documentaries generally carry less tension than feature films (this isn’t always the case, of course––Bart Layton’s The Imposter springs to mind) but Snowden somehow manages to be less dramatic than Citizenfour, and that leads you to wonder first if Snowden does anything at all better than the documentary on the same subject and second, why it needed to be made at all. Stone doesn’t entertain even the most hesitant suggestion that Snowden might not be a hero, or that his actions might have put people in danger or anything else that might have given this incredibly superficial fairy tale some nuance.
Stone doesn’t entertain even the most hesitant suggestion that Snowden might not be a hero, or that his actions might have put people in danger or anything else that might have given this incredibly superficial fairy tale some nuance.
There’s vanishingly little tension during scenes that should be as tense as a bowstring, and Greenwald’s reminders of the danger he and his fellow crusading journalists (including Ewen MacAskill, played byTom Wilkinson) are in––‘the CIA could break through this door at any second!’ he says, several times––only serve to point this out. Nick Cage turns up as the eccentric Hank Forrester, a character who adds nothing to the film. Timothy Olyphant does a turn as a cartoonishly slimy undercover agent. A hammy, hammy Rhys Ifans rolls out awful line after awful line, including ‘if 9/11 happens, it will be your fault’ and ‘secrecy is security and security is victory’, which sounds superficially profound, but isn’t. (It’s one of those lines which, if it were written down and followed by the name of a philosopher or president might solicit a knowing nod). Gordon-Levitt himself acts well and looks the part, as does his on-screen girlfriend Shailene Woodley, though together, the pair have absolutely no chemistry. Quinto, Leo and Wilkinson, too, are solid during the relatively few scenes––incidentally, the best scenes of the film––in which they feature. Quinto in particular gives some of the best lines of the film.
After an opening act in which a lot happens very quickly, the film begins to trudge along, eventually slowing to a crawl in third act. Snowden’s epilepsy becomes a main source of drama for a period, as if the NSA somehow have a role in that too, though Stone goes some way to redeeming himself at the film’s climax, during which are there a few genuinely good moments. You wish, once Snowden has finished, that Stone had been more daring. This is a man who has waded deep into controversial subjects such as the Vietnam War (Platoon) and the excess of the Reagan era (Wall Street) after all, and Snowden is very boring stuff.