Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is working for the CIA in Sweden. After years behind a desk he’s granted permission by his superior officer (the smiling and slimy Timothy Olyphant) to undertake some field work. He makes a connection with a banker and returns to his field office to do some searching into the man’s connections. He’s granted access for the first time into the NSA’s version of Google. After looking at his connections branching out in a digital spider web, his technician colleague suggests looking into his sister-in-law. When he selects her identity he immediately remotely activates her laptop camera on a switched off device and reveals a muslim woman, removing her hijab and beginning to undress. It’s in the perverse ease that we invade privacy and modesty that Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” attempt to shakes the audience to their core.
“Snowden” follows the NSA/CIA whistleblower of the same name from his military service in 2004 to his eventual release and publication of proof that the U.S government had sanctioned spying internationally in 2013. Snowden is a figure of controversy. From the perspective of the dominant political establishment he’s a criminal; in the eyes of the media, he’s perhaps the ultimate whisteblower; the public range from not knowing that he exists, to rabidly supporting his courage to reveal to the public and the world that the U.S has indeed become the world’s Orwellian police.
Stone and leading man Jospeh Gordon-Levitt get beneath the spin that Snowden is a traitor and explore the man’s patriotism. From his unfortunate failed attempt to enter the Marine Corps (fragile bones in his legs resulting in one catastrophic injury ruling him out of active duty). High school drop out, self taught computer wizard, instead of simply taking to his administrative duty, he decides that working for the intelligence community is where his skill-set is best suited.
Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden as a historically engaged man, willing to do what’s necessary to serve and protect his country. In manner and posture, Gordon-Levitt does a wonderful job of portraying Snowden authentically without simply morphing into an impression. Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden is inquisitive, he’s not satisfied with toeing the company line or mildly shrugging his shoulders that he’s following orders. Unlike the clarity of active service (rules of engagement/human rights); the war games being executed digitally have a dissociative effect in the characters around him that never permeates in Snowden. In a vital moment of the film, he and his NSA team in Hawaii (his final post) are talking ethics around a camp fire and Snowden is quick to remind his peers about the Nuremberg Trials; and the concept of “following orders” may not be satisfactory in the eyes of international law.
Shailene Woodley plays Snowden’s long standing partner Lindsay Mills; a reflection of most modern people; creative, eclectic and living a life online. Snowden must be extremely careful not to reveal anything that he’s involved with to his partner, so in abstract general conversations he uses her as a litmus test. Woodley becomes the reflections of public perceptions; uncaring, with “nothing to hide” until she begins to realise the depths with which our existence as private citizens is compromised.
Snowden is an idealist, Nicholas Cage’s Professor Hank Forrester becomes the film’s minor history lesson and composite character that discusses how technology could exist in a more constructive (and legal) way. Rhys Ifans’ Corbin O'Brian is a man who sees Snowden’s potential. He is also one that carries the burden of being a part of the generation that allowed 911 to happen. That becomes the valid foundational purpose that allows him to be fine with all the other ways that he subverts the truth.
Oliver Stone is a director whose most renowned projects feature a chaotic impressionistic style. When he wants you to be lured into the protagonists perspective, he’ll give you a flurry of the storm of their subconscious in streams of images and sounds. Snowden too seems like a film with the same pervasive paranoia essence as something like “J.F.K.” Instead we see Stone in a more conservative and precise mode. When his film “World Trade Center” about the brave members of the New York Fire Dept. who entered the collapsing building on September 11, 2001. Stone mutes his aesthetic flair to stand and salute these public servants. Stone admires his subject in “Snowden” in much the same way that he wants to honour his sacrifice with restraint. The screenplay is adapted from two novels. Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald do a tremendous job of filling in the formative years of the titular man and the values that governed his actions. The opening moments of the film acknowledges the dramatisation of the subject to be open with the fact that narrative ‘shortcuts’ are being taken for the purpose of being succinct. However, where possible Stone recreates the scenes found in the “Citizenfour” documentary, to remain as true to Snowden’s ordeal as possible.
“Snowden” is a film that should frighten us, but instead it seems to garner shrugs of “yeah man, it sucks.” In comparison to Michael Mann’s “The Insider”; which similarly used the cinematic lexicon of the conspiracy thrillers of 1970s (“Network”, “3 Days of the Condor”, “All the Presidents Men”) and ultimately packed a resounding punch. The tobacco companies were indeed brought to justice, and continue to be litigated against for their public lies. Snowden’s antagonists remain in power, and the nuclear pay load of illuminating information, barely registers a blip on the radar. The proton torpedoes fired, the exhaust port is hit; but the Death Star is still operational.
Why does a character like “Sully” and his famous landing known as the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ make us feel sure to laud his heroics and still be indecisive in the case of Snowden? The outcome, is much more tangible to grasp; life or death. Sully the titular pilot (played by America’s sweetheart Tom Hanks) was captaining a flight out of New York when a flock of birds struck the plane and simultaneously destroyed both engines. In the preceding moments Sully must decide to risk a return to his port of origin or a landing zone nearby. In seconds Capt. Sully calculates that the risk of the plane crashing into New York City becomes too great and performs an unbelievable water landing on the Hudson River. Faced with instant celebrity, Sully must put on a ‘game face,’ behind the scenes the air crash investigation team call into question every reflexive decision made in the extremely limited time to attempt the terribly risky exercise.
Much like “Flags of Our Fathers,” director Clint Eastwood is back to compare our conceptions of heroism with time and additional illuminating facts. The conceit of the film becomes whether the decision to land a plane on the Hudson was in fact the best possible outcome for the passengers and the airline. The board room investigations cast doubt on Sully’s experience and whether his age, and 42 years flying was in fact a hindrance. Eastwood allows us into the nightmarish visions that haunt Sully even during his waking hours. Hanks and Aaron Eckhart (who plays co-pilot Jeff Skiles) are terrific. Laura Linney is the wife at home (Lorraine Sullenberger) battling with celebrity.
“Sully” is completely engrossing. While reviews have universally praised the fact that Eastwood and co. were able to stretch out the tale of a 208 second flight into a full 96 minutes, it’s the powerful renderings of the Sully’s worst fears (and for that matter the audiences worst fears) like scar tissue that informed his decision. Despite only being said in one fleeting comment, the skyline serves as a constant reminder of New York City’s association with air related disaster. In the final public trial to determine the correctness of Sully’s actions one of the investigators must concede that it’s the first time in his life that he’s listening to the in-flight cockpit recording with a pilot; the rest had perished. Sully is the hero that America needs right now; Snowden is the one it deserves.
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone based on the novels by Anatoly Kucherena and Luke Harding
Melissa Leo ... Laura Poitras
Zachary Quinto ... Glenn Greenwald
Joseph Gordon-Levitt ... Edward Snowden
Rhys Ifans ... Corbin O'Brian
Nicolas Cage ... Hank Forrester
Shailene Woodley ... Lindsay Mills
Tom Wilkinson ... Ewen MacAskill
Joely Richardson ... Janine Gibson
Timothy Olyphant ... CIA Agent Geneva
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Todd Komarnicki based on the novel by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow
Tom Hanks ... Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger
Aaron Eckhart ... Jeff Skiles
Valerie Mahaffey ... Diane Higgins
Delphi Harrington ... Lucille Palmer
Mike O'Malley ... Charles Porter
Jamey Sheridan ... Ben Edwards
Anna Gunn ... Elizabeth Davis
Holt McCallany ... Mike Cleary
Laura Linney ... Lorraine Sullenberger
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