The single best moment of the “Snowden” press screening came after the movie had concluded. It occurred during a Q&A which featured the film’s stars, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley; its director, Oliver Stone; and the man himself, Edward Snowden (this last over the internet from Russia).
During this chat, which was moderated by Matt Zoller Seitz, Snowden spoke eloquently on the importance of privacy and how that ties into other freedoms like speech and religion. He discussed how his choices were influenced by the results of those who came before him, like Tom Drake (who was in the audience). His points on this were both smart and emotional, drawing people in to the man and his plight, something the film itself is wholly unable to do.
Instead, what Stone has delivered filmically is a relatively inert affair, one which covers a portion of the facts and offers little insight into motivations. It is a tale of good (Snowden) versus evil (government) with little to no nuance. It is a movie where a member of the government intelligence community, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), actually looms over Snowden during a video call. It is a movie where, upon stealing the government’s secrets, Snowden literally walks out into the light.
Snowden—as the film offers it—is a guy who, at the outset, just wants to help his country in any way he can. Unsuited for the military, he decides to work in the intelligence field. Initially someone who is politically conservative, after falling in love with photographer Lindsay Mills (Woodley) and seeing how the government collects intelligence, Snowden goes more liberal.
He realizes that the U.S. intelligence community is the bad guy, so he quits. And then he joins again. And then he quits. And then he joins again.
Without a doubt, there is a reason Snowden kept going back and forth, but Stone’s screenplay, which he wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald, is able to offer any cogent reasoning. The closest it ever comes is a limp answer from Snowden about the job paying well. Such an answer is wholly unsatisfying by itself, but when it is combined with the utter mountain of horribly intrusive and morally questionable (at best) actions Snowden witnesses government agents and agencies perform, it becomes laughable. That said, it is perhaps not as laughable as moving to Hawaii with Mills to take a very serious analyst position at a moment when, due to seizures, he is supposed to face less stress. Simply put, there is little to no insight into Edward Snowden and his motivations within the film.
The single most beautiful, most awe-inspiring moment—one which comes complete with uplifting music—is what ought to be a terrifying visualization of people being tracked all over the globe. Why this one moment of this horrifying act would be portrayed in what comes off as a positive manner is head-scratching.
Taking a quick step backwards, the film’s tale of how Snowden came to steal information from the government is wrapped around the story of his handing off said info to Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). The movie regularly cuts back and forth between the filming of “CitizenFour” and Snowden’s history until the two moments finally meet and he becomes a wanted man.
Even here, Stone is unable to provide any sort of cogent answers about how things unfolded in the way that they did. There is no explanation of how Snowden left Hong Kong. After remaining in hiding so that he doesn’t get arrested, he simply seems to go to the airport and leave.
More than once, Stone glosses over the various moments that might provide insight into Edward Snowden, his decision-making process, and the actual events that took place. It is a film with tunnel vision, one which isn’t ever able to let any of its actors create fully-realized portrayals because it is so busy dividing things into “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.”
“Snowden” is indeed a film which prompts questions. It is a film that will have the audience leave the theater wanting to know more, but not because it opens up those lines of inquiry, instead, specifically because it avoids them.
photo credit: Open Road Films