Pretty much everyone has heard of Edward Snowden, but Oliver Stone wants to take us behind the headlines to look at the man himself and what he was exposing when he leaked top secret information about what spying agencies were up to. The movie opens at the end, with Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room, preparing to go on record with what he knows and the information he’s releasing. Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback, when a young Ed is forced out of the military and gets a job at the CIA in the days after 9/11. Along with his new career, he starts a relationship with the lefty, arty Lindsay (Shailene Woodley).
Initially pleased to be helping the US prevent another major terrorist attack, but after working for the CIA and then as an NSA contractor, Snowden becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the massive surveillance network the government has built. Secret projects and operations allow the spying agencies to go far beyond just finding the bad guys, and give them the ability to hide illegal activities and mistakes, and to track pretty much anyone and everything they choose, whether they’ve done anything wrong or not.
It’s difficult not to feel that 20 years ago director Oliver Stone would have created something truly special and incendiary around the story of Edward Snowden. Unfortunately though, over the years he seems to have kept the things that should have evolved, and lost the things he should have kept. The filmmaking style that once felt fresh and innovative, here comes across as rather old-fashioned and occasionally a little silly. The different film stocks/styles, and particularly here its use of audio make the whole thing feel like it’s taking place in an alternate reality, rather than being about one of the key moments in recent history.
Equally the plot wants to make it a rather standard spy story, which constantly feels like it’s under-serving the truth. Even the things that Stone used to be brilliant at – presenting a lot of cold hard fact in dynamic ways that caused outrage in the viewer – have been dulled here so that the things that the US government was up to that should really cause anger (or at least which it appears Stone wants to cause anger), are likely to cause a shrug. In fact, except for a few moments when what it’s saying hits home, it tends to explain the over-reaching spying programmes so blandly, that they sound oddly reasonable here.
All this is largely because it’s presented in such a Hollywood-ised way, it often feels like you could be watching a Bourne movie rather than something real. That feeling is underscored by the fact the only person offering an alternate viewpoint to the movie’s praising of what Snowden did, is a shadowy (fictional) CIA agent, played by Rhys Ifans in such a moustache-twirling way it makes it feels as if the movie is being fake about something it really didn’t need to.
It’s also frustrating that it’s so psychologically thin. You’d hope a movie about Edward Snowden would get you to understand the man himself, but Stone purely wants to heap praise upon him, so that he seems like a work of fiction. If you watch the real Snowden, he is a fascinating character – erudite, thoughtful, interesting and with the edge of arrogance and black and white viewpoint that so often typifies whisteblowers. Unfortunately the movie makes him rather blank, with the arc of him going from card-carrying right-wing believer in government to someone who questions everything and eventually risks everything to expose the truth, feeling rather perfunctory. Even the romance between Snowden and Lindsay feels more like a storytelling device that something that illuminates anything.
Ultimately it’s not a bad movie, it’s just frustrating that a story that’s so fascinating, multi-dimensional, complex and important – both in terms of what Snowden exposed and why he did it – is made flatter, more stereotypical and less riveting that it really ought to be. The Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour did a far better job of outlining the case for why Snowden was right to reveal the information he did, and while it largely focussed on the revelations, in many respects you got better idea of who Edward is. It was equally as hagiographic as Stone’s movie, but unlike this fictionalised take, it didn’t feel like you were being sold a line.
It’s rather ironic that anyone who views Edward Snowden as a traitor is likely to feel the film confirms their suspicious. That’s because so much of it comes across like a fake Hollywood spy story, that they’ll feel that if Edward was really right, the film wouldn’t have to work so hard to turn the world into one with so few shades of grey, and which hits so many filmic clichés. It’s so unnecessary, because it’s a truly incredible and fascinating tale on its own, and it’s in the shades of grey and the fact that Snowden broke out of the status quo that the meat of the story exists. Once upon a time, Oliver Stone would have been precisely the person you’d want delving into that, but nowadays, not so much.
Overall Verdict: If you don’t know anything at all about Edward Snowden, or you don’t care and just want an okay spy movie, Snowden will fit the bill. Those genuinely interested in the man himself and one of the most important stories of the past decade, will likely be underwhelmed.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac