Monday, September 26, 2016

SECRECY=SECURITY=VICTORY?: a review of "Snowden"

Based upon The Snowden Files by Luke Harding
Based upon Time Of The Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena
Screenplay Written by Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone
Directed by Oliver Stone
*** (three stars)

I suppose that I have always felt that the public and media's perception of Edward Snowden, the computer professional who leaked crucial and classified information from the NSA to The Guardian and is currently living in exile in Moscow, has been more than a little simplistic and sadly inherent of our dangerously "either/or" responses to superlatively gray moral areas. I have never felt it enough to label the man as either being a "hero" or "traitor" to the United States Of America but for that matter, I have, and still remain, somewhat indifferent to him because his actions, frankly, didn't reveal any information that I really feel that we, as a nation, should have already known.

Now that is not to say that I am especially politically savvy. I really am not. But, once The Patriot Act was enacted in 2001 by President George W. Bush, I just knew back then that the floodgates against our civil liberties were doomed and entirely in the supposed name of ensuring the security of the country. To say that I am skeptical of the government's intentions towards its citizens woud be an understatement and the fact that we have a constitutional right to protest against the government would be an even greater understatement at that. In fact, as my Father once expressed to me, "Of course, we're being spied upon! We've been spied on since President Hoover!"

With all of that being said, my curiosity was indeed piqued when it was announced that none other than Oliver Stone would tackle this subject for a new film. Despite the fact that Stone's filmography as of recent years has been less than stellar, almost existing as mere snacks compared with the sumptuous five course cinematic meals of his most celebrated and controversial works from "Platoon" (1986), "Wall Street" (1987), "Born On The Fourth Of July" (1989), "The Doors" (1991) and "Natural Born Killers" (1994) among so many others, I would be hard pressed to think of another filmmaker who seems to be a perfect fit for such inherently difficult subject matter,from concepts of national security,the price paid for our collective freedoms as well as the figure of Edward Snowden himself.

With "Snowden," Oliver Stone once again does not return to his former glories but the film overall is not a let down either. It is a solid film, one that functions quite well as a slow burn of an espionage thriller but one that is filled with provocative themes to discuss, debate and digest, even while the titular subject comes off more a a symbol rather than a complex human being.  

"Snowden" stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in a strong performance that is eerily uncanny to the real world individual. Oliver Stone traces Snowden's life from his failed attempt in the Army Reserve due to shin splints and his subsequent employment for the CIA and as a contractor for the United States government.

Through his work, we witness his mounting paranoia and crisis of conscience as he discovers the extents to which the government has invaded the private lives of innocent United States citizens under the pretense of maintaining national security against acts of terrorism, to finally his actions which led him to copy and release classified information which revealed many global surveillance programs run by the NSA and with the cooperation of telecommunications companies and European governments.

Snowden's journey is chronicled alternately through the respective prisms of a clandestine interview in a Chinese hotel with documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) as well as his precarious romance with acrobat/blogger/aspiring photographer Lindsey Mills (Shailene Woodley).

As previously stated, Oliver Stone's "Snowden" is not a great film, the kind of fire and brimstone, rattle-the-cages effort that we typically associate with this firebrand filmmaker. However, it is a good film, beautifully lensed by Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and filled with exceedingly strong performances from Gordon-Levitt, the excellent Rhys Ifans as Snowden's mentor/Father figure Corbin O'Brian, a dialed down Nicolas Cage and also the continuously surprising Shailene Woodley (who does indeed does the most she can in a somewhat one dimensional role).

Whee the film faltered for me was in its shallow depiction of its titular figure which made the film shockingly and unfortunately, more simplistic as a character study as Stone paints Edward Snowden as being somewhat of the last America Boy Scout with nothing less than a level of hero worship. In some ways, Stone's portrayal, despite the strength of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance, is one that essentially becomes equal to the so-called character study a la sheer right -wing propaganda as seen in Clint Eastwood's powerfully effective but dangerously irresponsible "American Sniper" (2014).

In Stone's cinematic eyes, he has envisioned Edward Snowden as an undeniable intellectual genius (and somewhat robotic) yet he is also the most earnest, sincerest of patriots, one who initially leaned politically to the right but whose patriotism never wavered, even while questioning the government. His actions were not only heroic but entirely selfless--even to the point of sacrificing his own health (as he was prone to epileptic seizures and apparently ceased taking his medications to ensure his mind worked at its sharpest) in order for the truth to be fully revealed. Certainly, the real Edward Snowden is more complicated than that! For that matter, and for goodness sakes, any of you reading this posting out there are more complicated than that!

Now, certainly Oliver Stone quite possibly sees a bit of a kindred spirit in Edward Snowden within himself as based upon his past films, especially the brilliant, freight train fever dream fury of his masterful "JFK" (1993) for which he was dragged over the hot coals due to the myriad of conspiracy theories and supposed factual errors contained within that film.

But, amidst the fervor of that whole controversy, I still strongly feel that the main argument of that film was fully lost on its critics. That all Oliver Stone was essentially saying was that he did not believe in the findings of the Warren Commission and therefore, believes that our government lied to him about President John F. Kennedy's assassination and furthermore, that we as citizens have the right and responsibility to question our highest authorities and speak truth to power in pursuit of the greater truth. That's it and that all. Yet, what did strike me about that time as I pondered that film was perhaps it is easier for a wide American public to try to believe in something as preposterously impossible as a "magic bullet," for instance than it is to believe in the unfathomable truth that your very government is secretly and in ways, more than openly conspiring against its citizens--even the President of the United States.

And it is on that level where "Snowden" succeeds strongly as the film works as a 21st century companion piece to "JFK" as it is a film that basically asks the very same questions and houses the same fears. With "Snowden," Oliver Stone is again asking us to ponder seriously what is the price of freedom? How much of ourselves are we willing to casually hand over with false promises of obtaining greater security? What does it mean to be free and if we even have to ask those questions are we, and have we ever been free in the first place? Questions that are extremely more prevalent than ever with our current nightmare election cycle during which logic, reason and facts has no value when compared to the cult of personality.

Now, the cinematic approach Oliver Stone utilizes as a filmmaker continues in his current style, which is much less incendiary as his classic films and much more cerebral and subdued--a tactic that has made his films as of late more than a bit underwhelming--although I do still have high marks for "W." (2008), Stone exploration of President George W. Bush. Yes, I do prefer Stone's hallucinogenic, operatic intensity that seemed to reach outwards from the silver screen and grab you with two fists and white knuckles--even for his more interior films like "Talk Radio" (1988). But, such as it is, Stone is not that filmmaker anymore, for better or for worse, depending upon whom you would ask.

With regards to "Snowden," Stone has crafted a feature that functions more like a 1970's conspiracy/espionage thriller like something in the vein of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" (1974) and Stone does indeed generate a mounting Orwellian paranoia confidently. Also, Stone has made a strong cautionary tale a la David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010) as "Snowden" contains its own provocative themes regarding the gradual loss of our collective humanity due to the rise of our continuously enveloping technology.

And yet, when it was all said and done, once "Snowden" concluded, I guess I still found my sense of indifference towards the man had unwavered. Yet, for the dark realities that we all now know about (and frankly, we should have all seen coming rapidly), I fear that our collective sense of complacency and even apathy will land us into a world that we never knew could befall upon us. Because of that, the need to question, to provoke and feverishly demand answers from our highest authorities has become more paramount with each passing year.

And to that end, Oliver Stone's "Snowden" speaks to that concept powerfully.

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