Oliver Stone Looks Into A Whistleblower In Snowden
When I took government class in high school, I learned two things about the limits of the First Amendment. First, someone could not freely tell lies without being subject to consequences, such as accusations of slander and libel. Second, nobody could say or reveal anything that could be considered treasonous. Since then, I have learned that lies and treason can be subject to interpretation. In Oliver Stone's film Snowden, he shows how one man's act of treason can expose other ugly realities. At the beginning of the movie Snowden, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has become holed up in a Hong Kong hotel. He's meeting with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) as well as documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). He has entrusted them with the information he shares with them over the course of several days.
The film goes back and forth between the hotel room and Snowden's career in national service. After he breaks his legs during Army training, Snowden finds himself taking a new position in the CIA, where his proficiency in computers gets the attention of Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans), an agent and instructor at Langley. Along the way, Edward meets Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), an aspiring photographer who understands that much of Edward's work must remain a secret. Together, they travel to Geneva, where he works to make contacts in the banking community. He soon resigns that position to develop software as a contractor and serve as an instructor for new CIA recruits. The things he sees not only make him wonder about his efforts, but the work takes a toll on his health. Meanwhile, the reporters have to make the case to their editor, Janine Gibson (Joely Richardson) that the Snowden information should be published over US objections.
Stone, who co-wrote the movie scenario with Kieran Fitzgerald, uses two books as source material. The books come from Luke Harding (The Snowden Files) and Snowden's legal counsel in Russia, Anatoly Kucherena (Time Of The Octopus). The part where Snowden starts to question his loyalty is interesting, but it seems like a documentary more than the drama. His associates tend to treat their surveillance as a game as they show how they can read the most mundane e-mails and use a person's electronic devices to watch intimate moments. One scene shows an enhanced image of O'Brian telling Snowden, who's in another location, the importance of the assignment he has accepted. The part that I liked even more was the relationship between Edward and Lindsay. The couple struggles through most of the movie to balance Edward's need for secrecy with their need to have some sort of a normal life. Stone, however, does give the film a deliberately slow pace to show how Edward changes as he sees the way his employers use his ideas and his programs.
In their roles, Gordon-Levitt and Woodley make a compelling couple. Gordon-Levitt remains resolutely bound to duty as Smowden, yet he becomes increasingly careful about his actions. For example, he puts tape on his laptop and orders Guardian reporters to put their cell phones in his hotel room's microwave. He sees how operatives use one person and his connections as a reason to monitor all of those connections as well. He does, however, build bonds of trust on his final contracting job with Patrick Haynes (LaKeith Lee Stanfield), a man who, like Snowden, knows many languages. Woodley, as Lindsay, has a life more typical of a young adult, hoping to see the world and build a photography career. She knows Edward can't be open about his classified work, but she also needs a man who opens the rest of his life to her. Woodley gives Snowden a degree of warmth and humanity not found in the rest of the film. Ifans is solid as O'Brian, who balances his roles of mentor and taskmaster as best he can. Leo, Wilkinson, and Quinto make the best of their limited screen time. Nicolas Cage also has a small and enjoyable role as Hank Forrester, a Langley instructor who makes a connection with Snowden on a different level. The real Snowden, whom Stone met, appears late in the film.
As of this writing, Edward Snowden remains in Russia, charged with violating the Espionage Act Of 1917 for leaking military secrets. The problem is that the CIA and NSA acted under FISA law to collect information without warrants, and that communications companies saw no problem with potential invasion of privacy issues. In the wake of the film's release, I read a call for Snowden to return to America from Moscow to answer his allegations. Snowden, I suspect, would remain as unpopular as any other whistleblower. On the other hand, he could provide a voice for responsible surveillance instead of trying to monitor so much that has no consequence beyond its intended recipients. Snowden shows why Americans should always be wary of government overreach, but the better story comes from a couple navigating the hazards of a relationship while one works in a sensitive line of employment. Snowden is informative, but it works best when it doesn't feel like a documentary.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Snowden three stars. Who monitors the monitor?