Traitor or Whistleblower? This question might cross the mind settling in for a screening of Oliver’s Stone’s first feature film in four years; Snowden. We are steered to a specific message, nothing unusual for Mr. Stone. He provides his usual dose of investigative dramatic filmmaking; a style he owns. In short order we become less obsessed with passing judgement on the man and enthralled with this vivid and sweeping look at the long reach the NSA and CIA crafted in a post 9/11 world. The vast surveillance apparatus developed by these government departments to collect and analyze millions of messages from as many citizens was born out of fear, and hardened by a determination to block future catastrophic attacks.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Edward Joseph Snowden. In his interpretation we see a person who made an irrevocable decision to expose a top secret government program. In his heart he’s sure he did it for all the right reasons. Based on what I’ve seen and read, Mr. Gordon-Levitt gets a lot right. His stature allows us to recognize Snowden, which is confirmed in Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning and important documentary Citizen Four. Mr. Stone showed the real Snowden the script (co-written by Kieran Fitzgerald) and carefully reviewed his extensive notes. “Ed would help us get it right,” Stone commented in a recent Wired magazine interview.
Gordon-Levitt covers a lot of ground but is at his best in the later reels of the film when he has completed the transition from, by-the-book government man to someone who has drawn a bright, red line on behalf of all citizens who inhabit the planet. I was stuck by the sense of burden he displayed, as well as the calmness that was obviously required while living inside such a tempest.
Mr. Gordon-Levitt played Philippe Petite last year in The Walk. The story of the man who walked between the World Trade Center towers (full review here). There is an erie parallel between Petite and Snowden. Both were driven by strong passion, were immensely talented in their field and orchestrated an amazing performance, instantly captivating the entire world. Petite christened the Towers. Snowden made a choice to not let their falling lead to the death of privacy.
Picture opens unexpectedly with Snowden’s first pass at patriotism; becoming a member of the Special Forces. His attempt ends prematurely due to leg injuries suffered in training and not treated in a timely manner. When the doctor delivers the devastating news that he will never become a front line solder, he reminds Snowden, “There are many ways to serve your country.”
Soon we are thrust into assignments inside the covert walls of an acronym government. He rose quickly through the ranks, gaining more access and with it classified clearance. Over time he became increasingly entangled in the dark web of the CIA. There is no doubt that, despite being mostly self-taught he was wicked smart.
Snowden meets Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley. They communicated through a dating site for certified geeks whose families are life long employees of the military or state department. Lindsay falls for Edward but their relationship is tested by Edward’s stress, his professional requirement for secrecy and his stubbornly revealed epilepsy.
One of the most interesting characters in the story is Corbin O’Brien, played by Rhys Ifans. O’Brien is a high ranking official at the CIA and takes Snowden under his wing. O’Brien epitomizes the CIA of the time. Super smart, experienced and full of guilt that he did not see 9/11 coming. He is given some of the script’s best lines and is purposely framed in cartoonish style. On a hunting trip with Snowden he says, “The modern battlefield is everywhere.” Snowden’s exchanges with O’Brien had a strong influence on him, and certainly weighed heavily later on. O’Brien believed he could control Snowden and used the digital dragnet technology to calm his fears about Lindsay. It didn’t work.
Snowden asks for field experience while in Switzerland and O’Brien grants it. For the first time he ventures to the other side of the computer screen; straight into the action. Snowden has trouble in this strange world written in a completely differently coding language. Lindsay comes to the rescue and uses her social skills to give him an opening. As the assignment evolves. Snowden is asked to do some things he’s uncomfortable with. In the process he sees a system that collects content about people. All people. Emails, Tweets, Facebook posts, text messages, access to their device cameras and microphones; everything. It can even be viewed in real time. Snowden is jolted and quits the CIA.
Eventually he makes his way back to the as a contractor working for Booze Allen Hamilton, this time from a concrete bunker inside a Hawaiian mountain. The film’s pacing picks-up and tension builds as he chooses to download classified documents and makes the decision he can never take back. Although the crucial moment is filmed to be a tough decision, we know that it was carefully and deliberately planned.
Stone begins to cross-cut scenes, injecting the interviews (seen in the Poitras documentary Citizen Four) conducted inside a Hong Kong hotel room. Snowden meets with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian. He passes the torch directly to them, and only them, destroying his source material before checking out.
This is the first time Mr. Stone has filmed a feature completely on digital. I definitely missed that Stone / Robert Richardson (cinematographer) magic in the visuals, but there was no other way to shoot this story. Bits not celluloid for Snowden.
Mr. Stone turned 70 this year, and although he continues to pursue an active career, his approach to this material is less intense than in the past. He is very interested in character and the push and pull of power, but he doesn’t give us the bold grit of taking if one step further. I miss that. Perhaps he’s just exercising discretion in a world where nothing seems private. As Snowden says in the film, “We all have something to hide.”
The production values take some detours, mostly for the good, but occasionally seem out of place. The editing evokes Nixon and at times even JFK. There is liberal use of quick-cuts, mostly to artifacts from Snowden’s past. They are not overused and succeed in providing just enough to keep us wondering; who really is this man.
When one takes on a film about a person who is still alive, especially someone so young, it must be interesting to meet and invite them into the storytelling. When the cinematographer on Snowden, Anthony Dod Mantle met him, his reaction was, “He’s like an old soul in a very young body. He’s got fingers like violins.”
In the final minutes of the film, the Gordon-Levitt Snowden is on screen alone in a small room, as he often is; telling his story via the internet. Stone slowly transitions to the real Ed Snowden, who offers the following.
“When I left Hawaii, I lost everything. I had a stable life, stable love, family, future. I lost that life but I’ve gained a new one, and I am incredibly fortunate. And I think the greatest freedom I’ve gained is that I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.” — Edward Snowden
The soundtrack mixes two styles. An original score and an orchestral score, both penned by Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters. The original is more like what we hear in Mr. Stone’s films; written to punctuate the on screen drama. It’s right inside the frame and has traces of digital cadence. The orchestral version is further away from the press of Snowden’s day, reminding, almost haunting him of his past which is rapidly changing.
The real gem in the film, something that no one seems to be talking about, is the closing song by musical genius Peter Gabriel. His song The Veil is vintage Gabriel. Sonic, deep, deliberate, moving, etc…
Orignal score on Spotify.
Recommended reading. A New York Times piece that examines how Mr. Stone came to acquire the film rights and the filmmaking odyssey. Very good back drop material.