One critic refers to a new subgenre when reviewing "Snowden" – a movie about very recent historic events. In this film, in particular, the protagonist's face is very familiar to the general public, even those who have not seen the topnotch documentary, Oscar-winner "Citizenfour". I have. And I have also watched most of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's major work (too many to list). Watching this talented actor's portrayal, I came to believe that I was actually watching the real Edward Snowden. At the concluding scene of the monumental Moscow interview, when the camera deftly superimposed the real Snowden while fading out Gordon-Levitt, I hardly even noticed. That is how good he is!
"Citizenfour" came entirely from the camera of Laura Poitras (who never appears herself in the film, except for her voice) recording the interview Snowden had in a hotel room with two other media veterans Glenn Greenwood and Ewen MacAskill. Oliver Stone's "Snowden", anchoring on that interview to which he allocates less than one third of screen time, uses flashbacks to cover two other aspects of this "astonishing" (Ewen MacAskill's parting words) young man – career and romance. Everyone knows that the key controversy here is "whistleblower" vs "traitor". In his film, Stone is telling the story as Snowden would have liked to tell it. Personally I have no problem with that. Anybody who wishes can make another movie of Snowden, portrayed as a criminal.
The earliest flashback is brief, showing Snowden's grueling military training that ends abruptly with discharge due to physical disability. While he can still walk normally after an accident, landing with a parachute will definitely result in breaking his leg again. The next segments show his early CIA days where his brilliance is perceived quite differently by two mentors, both fictional characters. Right-wings to his bones, Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans, brilliant, scene-stealing) greets his class by telling them in no uncertain terms that if 911 happens again, it is their fault. He recognizes in Snowden the best student he has ever had as well as an immensely valuable asset to beefing up security. Hanks Forrester (Nicholas Cage, unimposing but scene-stealing in a different way) is fully sympathetic to this exceptionally talented young man who unfortunately, in his innocence, will eventually be disillusioned by the ruthless, unprincipled organization he is stuck with.
The romance story has been given considerable screen time, but handled in a low-key manner, which is the way it should be. This sequence is needed to build a three-dimensional character of the man Snowden, not just whistleblower Snowden. Even more importantly, it underscores the sacrifice Snowden has made. All he wants is a simple life with someone he loves and loves him. But on top of that, he also has affluence and lives in paradise (i.e. Hawaii). Shailene Woodley plays Lindsay Mills lovingly, a girl who clearly is nobody's fool but is also supportive when there are reasons to be. One subtext, likely unintentional, is the reflection of an ever-present dilemma that when respective careers dictate different locations for a couple, one has to concede if they want to stay together. In this story, he initially declines Hawaii because of her, but she eventually goes with him because the climate, she believes, will be helpful in his health problem (epileptic seizure).
While it is a gradual process for Snowden to see the "big brother" in CIA, it is in Hawaii where his promotion has given him access to the state-of-the-art surveillance technology that he makes that final decision to blow the whistle. Also interesting is the scene of a leisurely after-work beach barbecue gathering. A colleague, almost nonchalantly, tells how he witnessed a kid winding up being collateral damage in one of these routine surveillance operations. That immediately reminds me of the movie "Eye in the sky".
Probably recognizing that many in the audience would have seen "Citizenfour", director Stone wisely keeps the hotel room interview scenes low key and as faithful to the original as possible. The excellent cast helps, with Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson playing Poitras, Greenwald and MacAskill respectively (remember though that Poitras does not appear at all on the screen of "Citizenfour"). "Snowden" is even less of a thriller than "Citizenfour". The only scene of acute conflict is Greenwald's confrontation, in teleconference mode, with The Guardian's editor in London, Janine Gibson, giving her an ultimatum on the time of publishing. Gibson, incidentally, is played by Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave's daughter. As mentioned in the summary line, Gordon-Levitt turns in an excellent portrayal of the Edward Snowden that we have seen on screen, low-key, level-headed, passionate in an unassuming way. It is the image of the real Snowden, again as mentioned, that brings to conclusion this superb film that is not intended to inflame or shock you, but rather to "bother" (quoting from the critic) you, and make you think.
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