Snowden: He Leaked but This Film Is a Drip, by Ian Brill
Many people will be asking why Oliver Stone has made a film about Edward Snowden in the first place. Snowden and the information he released about government surveillance was one of the biggest news stories of recent years. Plus, he is already the focus of an Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour. But some of us welcomed the idea of a dramatization of Snowden’s life. Drama can provide insights that purely factual storytelling cannot. A dramatization can tell a more personal and emotional story. If only that was the kind of story Stone was interested in telling. Instead, he chooses to tell a very plot-focused tale, one that only pays perfunctory attention to its characters’ emotions. It will leave you asking “why did Oliver Stone make a film about Edward Snowden in the first place?”
The film covers nine years of Snowden’s life, from his ill-fated training in Special Forces to his now-historic stay in the Honk Kong hotel The Mira, telling his story to Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian and Citizenfour director Lauren Poitras. Joseph Gordon-Levitt replicates Snowden’s deep voice, although strangely not the slight Southern accent of the Maryland-raised Snowden. Gordon-Levitt and Stone are committed to telling a story of a buttoned-down and quiet man who does the extraordinary. The Snowden character in this film rarely acts very emotive in work situations. In most scenes in the regarding his career in U.S. intelligence, Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden as flustered or incredulous. The real moments of turmoil are in his scenes with Shailene Woodley, playing Snowden’s partner Lindsay Mills. On Snowden’s first date with Mills, circa the mid-00’s, the two have a political conversation amid a protest in front of the White House. These two live in and grew up near Washington D.C., so you would think they’d know to avoid such a hectic and serious place when on a first date. But Stone puts them there so they can trade painfully obvious talking points about patriotism, with Mills coming from a liberal viewpoint, and Snowden being the conservative. At least this presents something of an arc. How did Snowden go from someone who would complain of “the liberal media” to someone who committed one of the most radical acts of dissent in American history? Unfortunately, Stone answers this question in only the superficial way possible, leaving us with many questions about Snowden’s inner journey.
The narrative cuts back and forth between Snowden in Hong Kong and the events leading up to that day. This should provide the film a sense of drive, but instead the scenes in Hong Kong are some of Stone’s biggest stumbles. These scenes dramatize the filming of Citizenfour, but Poitras’ film found moments to humanize Snowden. Any chance Stone has to do the same feels false or becomes a polemic. There is a scene between Gordon-Levitt and Melissa Leo, who is portraying Poitras. Poitras asks Snowden why he went back to intelligence work after a bad experience early in his career. It starts as a quiet moment. You may think we’re getting the chance to see two great actors play off each other, that we may get a glimpse into Snowden’s psychology. Instead, we get back-to-back monologues about surveillance and government actions. These monologues are accompanied by graphics that seem more appropriate for a documentary than a dramatization. I understand that this information is important, but such a didactic scene feels out pf place in a dramatic story. We have no more insight into this realization of Snowden, even after another characters specifically inquired for such.
The most egregious example of Stone’s “tell-don’t-show” approach occurs late in the film. Snowden is having a conversation with his mentor in the CIA, Cobrin O’Brian (played by Rhys Ifans, doing a terrible American accent). In this scene, the Snowden character admits to using American surveillance technology to spy on Mills. This is a major moment of the film, but it’s something mentioned and never seen. There was never even a hint of him doing so earlier in the film. This is a major moment, one that unites the film’s major threads: Snowden’s intelligence career and his relationship with Mills. If such moments are going to be spoken of but never dramatized, then what is the point of a dramatization?
Gordon-Levitt and Woodley are clearly doing their best but their acting is based around the fights and disagreements they have. The culminating effect is that Mills becomes the wife/girlfriend characters often seen in middling television dramas about difficult men – the woman that’s confused and angry about her man’s actions and lack of communication and just won’t stop nagging him about it. A smarter film would find a way to play on the “Big Brother” way America acts towards its citizens and the paternalistic way Snowden often acts towards Mills. But Stone is only concerned with how his job is taking a toll on his relationship, nothing more significant.
The most emotional moment is actually when Gordon-Levitt is removed from the film. Stone gives the most emotionally naked moment to Snowden himself, appearing in place of Gordon-Levitt. It’s a compelling moment, but one of that only gives a spotlight to the many weakness in this film. Like many moments in Snowden, it’s further proof that those interested in a film about this story should seek out Citizenfour.