Snowden | reviews, news & interviews
Patriot, spy, hero or traitor? Oliver Stone directs Joseph Gordon-Levitt
As an old Sixties lefty brought up on paranoia-infused thrillers like The Parallax View or All the President's Men, Oliver Stone loves ripping open great American conspiracies. However, in contrast to his earlier labyrinthine epics Nixon and JFK, this account of CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden keeps clutter to a minimum as Stone fashions a tense, fast-moving drama which will leave you pondering over what's really justifiable for the greater good.
It's no great surprise to find that Stone portrays Snowden as a noble crusader for free speech and democratic accountability against the might of America's intelligence agencies, and if you happen to work for the CIA you'll hate this movie, but Stone makes Snowden's journey towards his fateful decision to spill the top-secret beans plausible and persuasive. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Snowden (many of whose family were federal lawyers or in the US military) starts out as a sincere young patriot, training for Special Forces but rejected as not physically strong enough to make the cut (pictured below). A computer genius who's keen to serve his country, he joins the CIA instead and whizzes through the admission tests with astounding ease.
However, as he's given various postings around the world, he becomes disillusioned at how the CIA and National Security Agency are abusing their seemingly unlimited powers. He's shocked at the way Timothy Olyphant's Geneva-based CIA operative cynically compromises a contact and blackmails him into becoming an informant, then later is horrified by the way a programme he helped create, EpicShelter, is being used for marking targets for extermination in drone attacks.
The sheer extent of what the Americans were, or are, up to remains flabbergasting, with the NSA supposedly capable of tracking every mobile phone on the planet, though it's supposedly all justifiable in the name of national self-defence. They're trying to "find the terrorist in the internet haystack", as Snowden's CIA trainer Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) puts it.
"You didn't tell me we were running a dragnet on the whole world," Snowden protests to his boss Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans), who likes to point out that "the front line is everywhere". For the the O'Brian role, Ifans (pictured below) has assumed a gravelly baritone loaded with menace, and seems to be channelling Jason Robards and Scott Glenn as he looms ominously from the screen in giant close-ups.
Stone isn't known for his light romantic touch, but he handles Snowden's complicated relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) deftly, and the way that Agency suspicions about Snowden's attitude to his work start to cast paranoid shadows over the couple's private life effectively personalises the broader picture. Indeed, the degree of intrusion which intelligence operatives are subjected to by their employers is a fascinating aspect of the tale.
Scenes of Snowden hiding out in Hong Kong while Guardian journalists prepare to publish his reams of top-secret revelations tend towards melodrama (Tom Wilkinson seems to share only the most only tenuous of connections with defence correspondent Ewan MacAskill, while Joely Richardson makes an unfeasibly actressy hash of Janine Gibson, editor of Guardian USA). Melissa Leo's portrayal of Laura Poitras (who made the Snowden documentary Citizenfour to which Stone's movie is quite heavily indebted) is marred by the malevolent creepiness Leo brings to every role.
However, Gordon-Levitt is pitch perfect in the title role, gradually revealing the steely inner core behind his nerd-like exterior, and skilfully evoking Snowden's process of disillusionment as he sees more and more of the skull beneath the skin of his homeland. Overall, this is a much better film than Stone's recent history might have led you to anticipate.
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