Oliver Stone’s Snowden – There Are Many Ways to Serve Your Country

Snowden 3.jpgTraitor 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…The Veil Blog.jpg

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.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – Film Review

It has been said that finance is the art of passing money from person to person until it vanishes. That seems a bit harsh. But looking back over the events of the last two years, one is tempted to think this might actually be true. A third certainty taking it’s place along side the other two; death and taxes.

There have been some interesting documentaries made about financial meltdowns; The Smartest Guys in the Room detailing the Enron crisis comes to mind. But Hollywood did not move quickly to explore the nearly cataclysmic events of the fall of 2008 when the economic system teetered on the edge of collapse. Eventually 20th Century Fox called Oliver Stone and asked him if he would be interested in making a sequel to his 1987 film, Wall Street. I’m so glad they did. The result is sparkling.

Shia LaBeouf as Jake Moore and Carey Mulligan as Winnie Gekko

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is unexpectedly fun. When a director decides to make a sequel of his own film he has access to a vast amount of material from the first picture. Characters, story, dialogue and of course the zeitgeist of the original moment. The challenge facing filmmakers of sequels is to carefully select what to incorporate. To make intelligent choices. I believe this is Mr. Stone’s first redux of one of his works. Some believe that doing a sequel is selling out. “Just for the money.” To those I simply recite the following, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Enough said.

There’s just enough of the past folded into Money Never Sleeps to remind us of what it was like in the ’80’s. It also takes an open eyes look at a financial ecosystem that found itself starring directly into the abyss. Mr. Stone teases out the nuances from the original script and carefully embeds them into the hearts and minds of the characters in new one. Some things look familiar, some are new. But what is most impressive is how he packs this picture with symbolism, spins it up and then back down, coming to rest on a seemingly happy ending that has an uncomfortable premonitory feeling.

Picture opens with Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas of course) being released from prison with a bag of useless personal items in one hand and one of those brick mobile phones in the other. He waits outside the prison for someone to escort him back into the silver lining he left behind. No one is there. In prison Gordon wrote a book and begins his new life lecturing about the evils of greed and how during the eight years of his incarceration it has accelerated and gone global, and no one can stop the inevitable. Is this guy Mayan?

An up and coming Wall Street trader named Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) attends one of Gordon’s lectures and catches up with him on the steps of the lecture hall. Jake is engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), which wins him 10 minutes with the master (former master). There’s a deal struck. “I’ll give you a photo of Winnie when she was young and you get me back on her good side.” Old times, Good times.

Oliver Stone directs Michael Douglas

Jake has been taken under the wing of Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) long time investment titan (read: Lehman Brothers). Zabel gives Jake a bonus check of $1.4MM for his loyal service to the firm. Jake looks on Zabel as his mentor. We all know what happens next. Zabel goes down like a house of cards in what seems like hours. Other firms, one in particular, bets heavily against it. The point of no return has been crossed.

The film is a feast for the ears and eyes. Stone shows us stunning visuals of Manhattan at it’s best. Large, gliding vistas bathed in warm light. All the buildings seem as if they have just been sandblasted. We never glimpse the seedy side. When you have money you never have to. He uses the cityscape as a one would a bar chart in a PowerPoint slide, superimposing the collapsing stock market atop the urban architecture. Money Never Sleeps is somewhat unconventional for a dramatic set piece by dabbling in documentary and experimental styles. The visuals are nicely complimented by the unique vocal stylings of David Byrne and the haunting music of Brian Eno.

The new Gekko in town is Bretton James (Josh Brolin). He is just as ruthless as Gordon, but times are more sophisticated now, so he is infinitely more dangerous. James recruits Jake (the Bud Fox of the day) to help them build out their energy portfolio. But Jake has a much stronger emotional pull in Winnie than Bud did with his father or Darien (Daryl Hannah). The story between the two lovers takes some expected turns to propel the story through a flurry of scenes that remind us that Gekko is still at large.

Jake has a pet project. A mad professor who is exploring new ways to generate energy and has a constant need for cash. Winnie is the anti-Wall Street person and works for a non-profit with a blog. Jake’s zeal to mend the relationship with Winnie and Gordon, and fund his project backfires. Instead it drives father and daughter further apart and seems to dash all hopes of saving his project. His actions do in fact fund Gordon’s come back.

Ground Zero: A constant reminder

Stone sprinkles symbolism throughout the film. Bubbles being blown by children in Central Park rise to the clouds. Jake walks on marble floors of new buildings that ring the 9/11 site, with the twin tower footprints looming beyond the shimmering plate glass windows. The towers are one of the first images we see in the original Wall Street. The original pillars of the financial world are gone and new shocking memories of storied financial houses failing are about to be created, again.

Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is as rich as the characters he lights on the screen. The script by Allan Loeb, Stephen Schiff, Stanley Weiser and Stone takes us from the parties and fund raisers into the tough boardroom discussions, including that late Sunday night “too big to fail” meeting with the government at the head of the table. The acting performances are crisp. I highly recommend this picture. Vsit the very basic official web site here.

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

W. – Film Review

Oliver Stone’s latest film is W., a psychoanalytic vista of the life and first term of George W. Bush. Mr. Stone tones down both his filmic style and voice on this one. It’s not at all what you might expect considering the subject matter and Mr. Stone’s track record. W. is actually quite tame and in many ways even handed. You certainly recognize his familiar signature camera choices and fast cutting, but he has slowed it down, giving the audience a chance to let things sink in along the way. It may have something to do with the fact that he’s telling a story of a sitting President and not someone who has since passed away. Or perhaps he just feels sorry for Mr. Bush.

George W. Bush is played brilliantly by Josh Brolin. He has nailed it all around. Clearly the voice. But when we see him swagger through the corridors of the White House after a disastrous performance at a press conference, you actually see the President and not the actor. An obviously challenging role Mr. Brolin executes it with skill, spirit and sensitivity.

This is a story about the Bush family, not just George. Poppy Bush’s (James Cromwell) presence is felt throughout, even when he ‘s not on screen. Jeb Bush was destined to be the next political player in the family, not W., but God stepped in, saved W. and made a brother swap that seems to have been just as upsetting to Poppy as it has been to the rest of the world. Oddly enough we are left with the notion that W. was more like Barbara Bush than Poppy. Who knew? I didn’t particularly enjoy seeing that much of the elder Bush, but the script left Mr. Stone little choice.

There are some excellent actors in the film, but no one is a stand out or scene stealer. Richard Dreyfuss plays Vice President Dick Cheney, Scott Glenn is Donald Rumsfeld, and Thandie Newton is a thin Condoleezza Rice, both physically and in character development. This crew is downright scary, but no one more so than Karl Rove (Toby Jones). Genius boy is always checking his Blackberry and constantly totes a three ring binder, probably full of algorithms that crack the code on how to pull another one over on the American people. Everyone kind of floats in the background, plotting their own personal agenda as an ominous, dark undercurrent of “party first” permeates through everyone’s psyche. Everyone that is except Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), who is uncomfortable with how things are being decided. We know how that ended. President Bush is decisive as we have come to know but relied heavily on his advisers. It’s a natural instinct, after all it was these guys and Poppy who set him up in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW. Too bad they got so many things wrong.

Out of nowhere, Mr. Stone cuts in some brutal footage of the Iraq war. It kind of feels like a cheap shot, as it is such a stark departure from the clinical, political settings we had been watching. It’s a chilling reminder that unleashing the “shock and awe” of war has equally “shock and awe” consequences.

Mr. Stone gives us lots to ponder. Periodically he brings us back to center field in the Texas Rangers baseball stadium. A franchise once owned by W. This was George’s field of dreams. A place where he could come and clear his mind. The White House lawn was not as kind. In the opening shot he’s in a baseball uniform sprinting toward the wall and snares a fly ball. In the closing scene he’s back in center field, but this time his uniform is the standard Presidential business suit. He’s tracking a fly ball once again and approaches the warning track. But the ball never finishes its arc. He gazes toward the sky in confusion and dismay. Wondering what happened.

The film was shot in 46 days so it could be released prior to the election. But there is really nothing new here, and certainly nothing at all controversial. It won’t have any impact on the outcome of the election.

Mr. Stone has always provided footnotes and historical references to back up his films. No where was that more important than in JFK, as the Book of the Film contained not only the screenplay, but countless cross references to actual events. That was before the web. The W. official web site is not that very inspiring or fun, but the W. official film guide site is fascinating. It provides descriptions of 83 of the film’s scenes accompanied by articles, reference works and other source material. It’s worth a look. As far as the film goes, you can definitely wait to rent this on DVD in a few months.

Photo Credit: Lionsgate and Warner Bros.