Congratulations, Oliver Stone, you humanized Edward J. Snowden in a way that the Oscar-winning documentary “CitizenFour” (2014) did not. What does this mean for scandals of massive covert surveillance and for the return of whistle-blower Snowden himself ? See the film and see if your perceptions of ” other ways to serve your country” change ever so slightly.
In a back and forth time frame, we begin in the same Hong Kong hotel room where Laura Poitras filmed her piece. We see her softer and almost mother-like as Poitras ( Melissa Leo) collects the cell phone of The Guardian reporter, Glenn Greenwald, ( Zachary Quinto) and places it in the microwave. (Tom Wilkerson as Ewen Macaskill, Scottish journalist for The Guardian, has already deposited his phone and recorder in the Mira hotel microwave.) We can see that Poitras wants to keep Snowden calm, but also, that she wishes to soothe his fears. This is more than a story for her. She considers him a hero.
The right-winged author of ” Atlas Shrugged”, Ayn Rand is quoted by our twenty-nine year old protagonist:” One man can stop the motor of the world.” “Truth to power” is our film’s thesis. Snowden is our truth-teller.
Snowden is no liberal. He has trust issues and verges on paranoia. Though he has not graduated from high school, he is savant-like in computer programming. “Heartbeat” being one of his side programs where a catalogue of all available systems is indexed. He is portrayed as incredibly smart, idealistic and keen for the service-leadership model. His ambition is tempered by respect for fellow colleagues and for his girl friend. Massive covert surveillance is against his ideals as an American. We learn of his epilepsy in an interesting scene of fogged-pasta vision and what blatantly stands for a “bowl of worms”. Stone can be less than subtle.
Snowden is played masterfully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His face is more expressive than the actual Snowden’s. We get a chance to see this when at the film’s end the real Snowden appears on camera. Gordon-Levitt, who has a more boyish visage, uses it to advantage in his boot camp experience. His Special Forces discharge, his young love experiences, and his hopefulness to please his superiors read like a “coming of age” tale. Though not the best physical recruit, he is stellar on “The Hill” at the CIA training center in Virginia. His meeting with Dr. Hank Forrester ( Nicholas Cage) shows mutual respect and an ardent interest in cryptography. They understand that the “modern battlefield is everywhere.”
Computer screens reflect the youthful faces, and a musical beat ramps up “Log On” during a five hour test that Snowden aces in thirty-eight minutes, top of his class. The musical score leads the action and underscores it like a beating heart energized. The whole score is well-paced and exciting.
The acting is natural and personalities exert a counterbalance that surprises. Nicholas Cage as Hank Forrester has been used and under-appreciated by governmental higher-ups. He identifies with Snowden and celebrates his successful mission to let the American people know. Teddy Roosevelt’s statement that ” A man’s usefulness depends on his ideals.” is used to elevate a man many call a traitor.
Cage gets lines that cynically speak of “a military industrial happiness” that equates to keeping the government coffers open. He chides the waste of money on non-essentials, espousing that the real threats are Iran, Russian and China over info. technology. The system that uses terroism as an excuse did not self-correct. Info is being used for economic and political gain is hinted. Protecting the supremacy of the U.S. Government may be at the core. A psychedelic photo of an eye morphs into visual displays of a scale of connections that is well~ mesmerizing.
The scene where Snowden is rejected for Special Forces and his efforts leading up to that rejection are the dreams and the realities of many patriotic youth. His romance with his polar opposite, Linsay Mills, ( Shailene Woodley) gets lots of screen time,too. It is through her eyes and banter that we understand his mind-set.
Gordon-Levitt is glowingly geeky. Lindsay has found him on date -match program, which given his privacy phobias seems odd. On a date with Linsay in a park, he won’t sign a petition that Linsay blithely signs. He remarks that he doesn’t ” want to bash my country”. When he kisses her, he jokes that her kiss “tasted like liberal”. Linsay takes dozens of photos, documenting their romance and showing the film goers what a shy twenty something he is.
The interplay with his National Security colleagues has him being called “Snow White” because of his naïveté when it comes to what FISA ( U.S. Foreign Intelligence Service Act ) and FISC ( Foreign Intelligence Service Court ) monitor.
The Rubrik cube sequence is smart and shows a way for documents to basically be thrown over a checkpoint. Actual slides will be shared with the world as proof that mal-ware is being used by the U.S. in Japan and even Austria. Over reach and power-gone -amuck seem to reign. Drone driven executions are viewed here, too. Stone has set his vision wide. The political and ethical focus is deep.
An interesting note is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt will be donating his take on the film to The American Civil Liberties Union. A now advocate for privacy issues and fearful of totalitarianism, Gordon-Levitt will make his mark both on-screen and off. Greenwald won a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his part in the telling. And girlfriend Lindsay Mills has joined Snowden in exile in Russia.
Experienced journalists need to lead the public in their understanding of what is at risk in complete non-transparency. Stone delivers here. The scale of data breaches is shown on reflected computer screens in a dizzy array of info -graphics and maps of the world.
Anatoly Kudcherena’s fictional book, “Time Of The Octopus” and Luke Harding’s 2014 book ” The Snowden Files: The Inside Story Of The World’s Most Wanted Man” will be added to my reading list. The rights to both books were acquired by Stone in his research.
I wonder if a Snowden reprieve will come up in the Presidential debates next week. Oliver Stone has stirred the cauldron of debate brilliantly.