You don’t have to be a film buff to guess what Snowden, the latest film from Oliver Stone, is about. Edward Snowden, IT consultant and former employee of the CIA and NSA, made headlines all over the world when he leaked thousands of classified documents to the press, exposing the illegal practices adopted by the US and UK governments to spy on their citizens and on foreign countries. The bombshell triggered massive reactions and protests, opening everyone’s eyes to their governments’ abuses of power. It also resulted in a massive manhunt to track down Snowden and apprehend him. What better director to make a film about this story, than the man behind JFK, Wall Street, and Born on the Fourth of July?
Although with hit-and-miss results, Stone has never been scared of showing the middle finger to the powers that be; he has always directed his films without fear of being labelled as a conspiracy theorist, a leftist pushing liberal propaganda, unpatriotic, or exceedingly controversial. And even if some of those labels could be true, Stone has relentlessly continued making films with the same healthy, hot-headed presumption, wanting to make people think, open their eyes, question the official versions of facts, exercise their critical sensibility.
There seem to be two different types of people harbouring expectations for this film: on one side, those who want to see Stone roar once again against the corruption in our governments; on the other side, all those who have given up on trusting the American director, and are ready to point out inconsistencies and flaws. After watching the film it looks like neither group will be satisfied. Snowden doesn’t succumb to Stone’s paranoia, or resort to misleading simplifications to prove its point; all the real events it recounts are dramatised without manipulative intent.
Where does Snowden fall short, then? In its painful lack of biting power. There is enough content to make people want to go home and call their parliament representative in anger, but Stone plays it too safe, failing to give us more to chew on. At best, Snowden is a good film, mainstream enough to draw your Average Joe in and tell them a story they might have never cared about as much as they should. At worst, it plays like a mash-up of news reels with some added details on Snowden’s romantic life.
The casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the titular role was probably one of the most successful moves, but the screenplay written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald hardly gives him any sensational lines. The scenes with his girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) seem to drag the film down rather than giving it more human depth, and sometimes feel like interruptions to the bigger story, especially later in the film. What works best, in fact, are the conversations taped at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, when Snowden passed the documents to three journalists: Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Glenn Greenwald (a spot-on Zachary Quinto), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). These scenes were filmed in real life by Poitras, who used them to make the Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour, a must watch for anyone who wants to investigate the matter further and delve deep into the character of Edward Snowden. Oliver Stone’s film can be seen as a lesser companion: visually strong and decently plotted, but a little too obvious and conventional to do justice to Snowden’s history-defining actions.
Snowden screens at the BFI London Film Festival 2016
Words by Davide Prevarin