Saturday, September 24, 2016


 2.5 / 5 

How could this happen?  How could a filmmaker as passionate, sometimes even lunatic, as Oliver Stone have taken the tale of Edward Snowden and turned it not into a deeply paranoid thriller but instead an overlong, over-talky and moderately dull recitation of the facts?

Even the mere facts of Edward Snowden's story should make compelling cinema.  In fact, they already did in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, which is a better movie not simply for its veracity but for its straightforwardness.  Citizenfour tells us what happened, and Stone's Snowden shows us what happened, but it never gets to the heart of exactly why and what it means.

In part, that's because Stone is not offering up any whacked-out conspiracy theories like he did in JFK or being as deliriously passionate as he was in Platoon, he barely even seems worked up about the revelations Snowden made about government surveillance of American citizens.

Strangely, we're not even all that worked up about it; after the initial flurry of coverage, outrage has given way to -- what? -- resignation?  Simple apathy?  Snowden should be full of righteous fury, but there's none.  It should be fueled by tinfoil-hat-wearing paranoia, but there's virtually none of that.  At one point, Snowden, having made up his mind to blow the whistle on the government, tells his girlfriend that her phone and maybe their house is bugged.  The most enthusiasm he can muster is to take her on to the patio.

Remember those great 1970s films in which the guy who thinks the government is going to kill us all suddenly realizes that everyone around him is suspicious?  As a society, we became so deeply fearful of the government, of everything we once believed was safe and secure, that the fear infused our popular culture.

So, how come there's none of that palpable sensation in Snowden?  After all, it's a movie based not on a wild conspiracy theory but a proven fact that our government has been spying on us.  But in the hands of Stone, who co-wrote the long-winded screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald, Snowden is little more than a recounting of a lot of unnecessary backstory.  There's a long sequence that shows how Snowden trained to be in the Army but broke his legs and ended up in the hospital, which is where he went on an online dating site, which is where he met a woman and told her that he was a deeply conservative patriot who believed his country could do no wrong, but she was a liberal -- and at that point, I started losing a lot of interest in Snowden.

As the movie follows Snowden into the CIA, where he isn't just smart but maybe the smartest guy anyone has ever seen, it detours into a long and ultimately extraneous story about how Snowden wanted to be a more active agent but developed a distaste for it after he found out the government could gather almost any sort of data on anyone anywhere.

This is where Snowden gets really problematic, because it never once places into doubt Snowden's near-sainthood, nor does it delve particularly deeply into his suspicion and paranoia.  It just dutifully dramatizes the stories we've heard before, that Snowden himself told in Citizenfour.  It is, in fact, a strange thing to see a big-budget film that is essentially a dramatic re-enactment of a highly publicized documentary.

Despite its simplicity and lack of any real perspective, Snowden coasts into near respectability thanks to a compelling central performance by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who is always an interesting actor and here manages to flatten both his voice and his usual exuberance to create a version of Snowden who somehow can be simultaneously intense and practically asleep.  Levitt captures the same sort of hangdog look that we've come to know from the real-life figure, who's never really exuded a deep charisma.

The rest of the cast mostly flounders with desperately underwritten characters.  Shailene Woodley is Snowden's stand-by-your-man girlfriend, while a strangely unrecognizable Rhys Ifans is the embodiment of sinister, secretive government, both mentor and antagonist to Snowden as the script sees fit.

He's not a very good villain, but the only other choice Snowden had was to make everyone the bad guy, to pit an unknown CIA analyst against everybody and everything, but that would have required the kind of energy, passion and paranoia that Snowden just can't seem to muster.  Which makes me a little worried -- if Oliver Stone can't get us frightened, angry and bewildered at the discoveries Snowden made, who can?

Viewed Sept. 23, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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