Film Review: Snowden

Oliver Stone again applies his auteurist m.o., combining skill and provocation with a passion to entertain in this riveting portrait of young American fugitive Edward Snowden, whose disclosures of massive U.S. intelligence surveillance shocked the world.
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The cinematic planets align in Snowden, as Oliver Stone convenes a superb cast—most notably Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the world’s most famous whistleblower, now secluded in Russia—real locations (Munich, Washington, Hong Kong, Hawaii), an exceptional script and all the bells and whistles a real-life high-tech suspenser deserves.

The film, Stone’s first shooting digital, carries significant impact and stokes consciences beyond the considerable news footage and docs about Snowden that have already hit eyeballs. Although intelligence and food-for-thought replace the routine action of mainstream films, revelations regarding intel work and the story’s suspense quotient are ample stand-ins, suggesting Snowden should warrant significant surveillance of b.o. numbers.

The film’s story—as structured by Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald—moves chronologically, except for frequent fast-forwards to Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel in 2013, where the hero (anti-hero to many) hides and secretly shares his stolen data with a trio of visiting media. They are documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Scotsman Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson).

But the film’s body unfolds to reveal how Snowden moved from passionate patriot and staunch conservative to outraged, liberal-leaning whistleblower who, to many, betrayed his country. His conservative credentials begin with his military family (his father was a Coast Guard vet) and his own move, skipping higher education, straight into the military until two broken legs at training camp disqualify him from service. His recruitment into intelligence quickly follows, as Snowden is uncannily gifted as a software programmer. At the CIA’s “The Hill” Virginia campus, his teacher/mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), taking notice of the young man’s ability, assures his ascent. While climbing in this notoriously secret world, he meets civilian Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), with whom he begins a romance that lasts to this day, and, befriending some NSA guys on a hunting outing, he then moves over to the National Security Agency.

As a top security contractor with brilliant computer skills, Snowden gains more trust and access from his superiors. With Lindsay in tow, he works jobs, sometimes undercover and overseas but always top secret. The strain of Snowden’s work (the secrecy, stress, long hours) unexpectedly puts a strain on his personal life. It also impacts his conscience when he realizes the NSA has access to everyone’s computer and device information and is poking around with ordinary citizens, even via their webcams when computers are off.

Finally, in a huge NSA underground bunker facility in Hawaii, where Snowden works under the not-so-watchful eye of gung-ho intel boss Trevor James (Scott Eastwood), his intentions turn dark as he sees the light. With the NSA having to handle so much data, he suggests a program he’ll create to index everything. The go-ahead allows Snowden to go ahead with his disclosure of the world’s most infamous, massive and shocking breach of personal data and top-secret illegal U.S. government activities (although flatly denied at a Senate hearing).

Suspense is even more amped up. The Guardian reporters convey the shocking breach to their London-based boss Janine Gibson (Joely Richardson), who initially resists releasing the story. After the news makes headlines worldwide, Snowden, destined for harsh punishment under the U.S. Espionage Act, must orchestrate an escape from the Hong Kong hotel where hordes of media hover.

Both provocateur and storyteller, Stone leaves viewers considering what a democracy is and when its purported protection and assumed ethical behavior go too far. And where does an individual’s responsibility lie in all this? And, finally, where is the vaunted American sense of justice in relegating the exiled Snowden (and even Roman Polanski) to be potential endangered strangers on our shores?

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