Snowden (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Snowden (2016)

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Edward Snowden - whistleblower who put American lives in jeopardy, or a man of bravery taking a rare and public stand for what he stands for?  Oliver Stone directs Snowden, with the screenplay written by Oliver Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley.

Regardless of veracity to the events of Edward Snowden's life, there's one scene in Snowden where the tightly wound intellectual and future whistle-blower felt familiar to me.  Sat down by a government official, Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is asked some of his favorite authors.  He lists Joseph Campbell, Henry David Thoreau, and - of course - Ayn Rand.  It's a little detail, but as we watch Snowden go from conservative to tentatively liberal to defiantly his own person that sacrifices his freedom for the good of the many.  Rand might have had a thing or two to say about that, but I found it kind of romantic.

Romance isn't something I typically associate with Oliver Stone movies, give or take a Natural Born KillersSnowden is unabashedly romantic, but the object of Snowden's affections isn't Snowden himself or his relationship to Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).  The romance comes from the idea that citizens of the United States are capable of recognizing the rot within their surroundings and give a damn enough to do something about it.  Snowden had changed enough as a person to recognize the evil our surveillance state was allowing and taking one hell of a stance to bring it to light.

Stone tempers down his aggressive style which makes the moments of intense paranoia hit harder.

I don't think it's fair to continue this review without sharing a bit about myself and my view of Snowden because there's no divorcing how romantic I found Stone's film to be without addressing it.  Listing Ayn Rand as a favorite author then watching Snowden's political transformation echoes much of my own intellectual development and view of Snowden himself.  White boys of the middle class seem destined to run into Ayn Rand at some point and I got my phase over in my senior year of high school.  I thought the plot of The Fountainhead was madness and the philosophy hypocritical but was enraptured by the passion.  My views on Snowden evolved along the same lines, wondering how he could object to data collection, and then feeling the rot in my soul the more I realized what barely verified evil that data was being used for.

Maybe you'll find Stone's approach to Snowden reductive in the way it condenses complex intelligence issues into a fairly streamlined entertainment.  I admire Stone's approach here.  There isn't as much visual daring that characterized Stone's earliest features but his restraint allows us to focus on Snowden's face as he uncovers new layers of information.  When he finds out things that shatter his worldview the result isn't one of rapid fire images but steady shot of Snowden's face as he struggles to comprehend his situation.  Intense glances around the room from Gordon-Levitt, closeups of the potential outlets they could be spied on, then the blast of steam Snowden allows his face to be clouded by.  It's still paranoia, which all Stone's films are characterized with in some fashion, just about the seemingly innocuous things in our lives instead of grand conspiracies.

Stone going full Natural Born Killers or even the fantasies of JFK in Snowden would have been too much.  When just about every electronic device produced is capable of spying on us the full-throttle Stone paranoia experience might have legit killed me.  I prefer the creeping dread approach Stone takes here, especially when it comes to Snowden and Lindsay's relationship.  They have a sex scene that started in total alignment with convention - soft lighting, nice music - until Snowden sees a webcam pointed in their direction.  The vision becomes harsh, angled low, cutting violently as Snowden imagines what the ephemeral eye of surveillance is seeing.

The scene is also important because of a smart screenplay decision from Stone and cowriter Kieran Fitzgerald.  Snowden is not the only one affected by his growing dread, and a lot of attention is paid to Lindsay.  Woodley is spectacular as Lindsay, who speaks the dialogue with a constant state of exasperation in both the good times and the bad.  Her defiance of Snowden in the bad times grants us a uniquely personal view on how the pressures of deep state surveillance can damage a relationship.  Snowden didn't have to be the one to blow the lid off the level of data being collected, but Lindsay also didn't have to be the one to stand by him the entire time.  When she says she'll wait for him but, "It's the last time," the moment is painful because Lindsay's and Woodley were written with so much space to make Lindsay's needs clear.

Always good to see Timothy Olyphant, and loved seeing him play against type as an effete government official.

Gordon-Levitt is a performer I have a hard time getting distance from.  When I loaned out my copy of Brick to friends back in Illinois, I'd inevitably be hit with texts like, "Brendan [Levitt's character in Brick] reminds me a ton of you."  Well, yeah, I was that kind of emotionally intense, perpetually weighed down, and focused to the point of masochism person.  I feel the same sense of recognition with his portrayal of Snowden here.  Questions come out of Gordon-Levitt's mouth with weight and purpose, his fidgety hands needing a toy or something to occupy himself, seeing the threats around him and tensing his body for impact but unable to explain that fear to those he loves the most.  I get that, and Gordon-Levitt's work hit me in an unquestionably personal space once more.

Snowden isn't Stone's best movie - that honor goes to Talk Radio - but it shares an existential crisis of ethics that Stone infuses in his best work.  Snowden's story, for once, allows an Oliver Stone movie to end on a sort of happy note.  It doesn't matter how revered or reviled he is for his decision.  That kind of sacrifice is rare and the beauty of Stone's film is how clearly he sees Snowden - the man who saw the evil, steeled himself for what was to come, and said, "No more."

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Snowden (2016)

Directed by Oliver Stone.
Screenplay written by Oliver Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald.
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley.

Posted by Andrew

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