Wednesday, September 21, 2016

In Theaters: SNOWDEN (2016)

(US/France/Germany - 2016)

Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Joely Richardson, Ben Chaplin, Nicholas Rowe, Basker Patel, Edward Snowden. (R, 134 mins)

It would be nice if Oscar-winning filmmaker and tinfoil-hat fashionista Oliver Stone was back in provocateur mode with SNOWDEN, but the message is lost in the auteur's didactic execution. Told with myopic tunnelvision and with nothing but gushing admiration for its subject, SNOWDEN lumbers along with little in the way of nuance or subtlety, and nothing in the way of questioning the ex-CIA/NSA whistleblower. It's canonizing hagiography of the most one-sided order, with Edward Snowden the sole voice of morality in a world of evil big government surveillance that exists only to piss on the freedoms of Americans and can't possibly have any positive purpose whatsoever. This should be a nailbiting thriller but Stone is so distracted by his Snowden man-crush that it never has a chance to reach the heights of his in-his-prime conspiracy/paranoia triumphs like JFK or NIXON. It's more in line with the hokey, neutered simplicity of something like WORLD TRADE CENTER. Snowden is a complex, complicated figure, but you wouldn't know it by watching SNOWDEN. Stone isn't interesting in getting in Snowden's head, so you're better off checking out Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning 2014 Snowden documentary CITIZENFOUR instead.

That said, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a terrific job of capturing Snowden's voice and mannerisms with uncanny accuracy. The film opens in 2013 as an on-the-run Snowden is holed up in a Hong Kong hotel preparing to leak secret CIA and NSA files to documentary filmmaker Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). Jumping back and forth from 2004 to 2013, we follow Snowden through a short stint in the Army, where his goal of joining the Special Forces is stalled by brittle bones and a pair of fragile legs that get him a discharge. Told by his doctor that there's other ways to serve his country, the conservative, Ayn Rand-admiring Snowden is admitted into The Hill, the CIA training facility in Virginia where he becomes the top prospect of (fictional) instructor Corbin O'Brian (a vampiric Rhys Ifans). He also falls in love with liberal Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who joins him when his new CIA job takes him to places like Switzerland and Japan, where his focus is cybersecurity and designing programs that are ostensibly used to monitor post-9/11 terrorist activities. He leaves the CIA but works for them on a contractual basis later on, and is disturbed to find that much of the US government's surveillance focus is spying on its own citizens and that one of his programs is used for drone strikes in the Middle East. Growing increasingly concerned about the nature of his work and how far the surveillance goes (he's informed at one point that his suspicions about Lindsay having an affair are unfounded, proof that the omnipresent They are watching her and monitoring her computer and phone activity), he decides to blow the whistle, stealing thousands of secret files and fleeing the country before reaching out to activist filmmaker Poitras.

How heavy-handed is SNOWDEN? The surveillance program is called "Prism," and when invoking it, Stone feels the need to frame shots with a prism effect that's also used when epileptic Snowden has seizures. It actually caused snickering in the audience about the 10th or 12th time it's used. How unsubtle is SNOWDEN? Ifans has been directed to play O'Brian in the most ominously sinister fashion possible, making it difficult to tell if he's a top CIA official or the Antichrist. Watch when he's shown speaking with Snowden in a conference room, Snowden physically there, but O'Brian on a giant, theater-sized screen as Ifans' looming, side-eyed visage takes up the entire display, just in case the whole "Big Brother is watching" concept wasn't already clear. The performances are generally solid, though Nicolas Cage is squandered in an intriguing but tiny role as a benched analyst curating antiquated espionage equipment, his sole purpose being to unknowingly supply the Rubik's Cube that Snowden will use years later to stash the SD card with all the files. But it's Ifans' bizarre portrayal that really sticks out, bringing to mind what might happen if PHANTASM's The Tall Man worked for the CIA. There's a nerve-shredding, Alan J. Pakula-type paranoia thriller to made about Snowden's exploits, and less preachy filmmakers could've done wonders with the subject. Remember that incredible Donald Sutherland exposition drop in JFK? That Oliver Stone could've done something with SNOWDEN. So could Michael Mann in INSIDER mode or David Fincher channeling ZODIAC. There's also a nice Mann vibe in some of Anthony Dod Mantle's digital cinematography in locations all over the world that recalls last year's criminally underrated hacker thriller BLACKHAT. Unfortunately, Stone the filmmaker defers to Dr. Stone the lecturing activist with an agenda. The film completely flies off the rails in a catastrophic climax that recalls Professor Steven Seagal's speech at the end of ON DEADLY GROUND, as Gordon-Levitt actually exits the film and Snowden takes over, playing himself being interviewed via internet from Russia, basking in the standing ovation he gets at a TEDTalk event. This drawn-out finale--more like a tacked-on Snowden infomercial--concludes with an inspirational, manipulative score crescendoing as a pensive Snowden finishes the interview, closes his laptop and turns away, in profile, triumphantly staring out the window of his Russian apartment and smiling, looking like he's waiting for Stone to cue up Foo Fighters' "My Hero" for the closing credits.

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