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Snowden - Movie Review

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Snowden - Movie Review

2 stars

For decades, filmmaker Oliver Stone has been running around frantically pulling his hair out in a “the entire system’s out of line” rage. Though his conspiracy theories have ranged from the ludicrously misrepresented to the virtually non-existent, the one thing that has remained relatively constant in an Oliver Stone film (save for his last few) is the idea that the establishment is rife with systemic overreach. He’s preached that we citizens should fear unchecked authority lest we lose our personal liberties, or worse, our individual identities as human beings.

The real story behind his latest film, Snowden, seems tailor-made to Stone’s “foot stomping” “sky is falling” brand of self-aggrandizement. After all, the real Edward Snowden rocked the world with his disclosure of illegal surveillance activities by the NSA – the very kind of nefarious impropriety that Stone has always warned us about. So how does he screw it up so badly? Mainly because he makes the curious decision to tell the story straight, like a point A to B biopic. Missing is his trademarked paranoid anger and fire in the belly bravado that once marked his filmmaking style. Snowden is totally devoid of passion and purpose. In a word, it’s boring. We should exit the theater frothing at the mouth. Instead, we check our watches, fiddle with our popcorn, and wonder how this thing is possibly going to stretch out to well over two hours.

The story unfolds in flashbacks, flopping back-and-forth from Snowden’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) now infamous hotel room meeting with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), to his early life as an Army dropout, CIA quitter and eventually NSA consultant.

In the hotel, he’s setting in motion the process for handing over all the information he stole for years about the U.S. government’s PRISM program which monitors the private cell phone and computer communications through providers such as Verizon, Apple, Yahoo and others. Some of the film’s best moments are those of the super-paranoid Snowden’s tasks to protect the privacy of their secret meeting. Pillows stacked in front of the door, cell phones placed inside a microwave oven to block any unwanted transmissions, and Snowden’s ducking under a pillowcase as he enters the password into his laptop, are the stuff of spy novels and make for an intriguing watch.

But a fluffed-up love story about Snowden’s relationship with photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) is handled poorly and feels like nothing more than soft, comfortable runtime-extending padding. Sure, we know she was important in the life of the real Snowden – in fact she still lives with him in exile in Russia, and she’s clearly included as a humanizing counter to the flat, emotionless Snowden, but the chemistry between Woodley and Gordon-Levitt simply isn’t there. This whole relationship thread only foils any focused anger Stone manages to muster up. We’re wasting our time here. The money shots are in the hotel-room, where neurotic paranoia and measured intensity can be scraped from the walls.

As intriguing as they are, the hotel room scenes are far from being totally impactful, their thunder having been stolen by 2014’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour which was the actual, first-person account of what actually went down in China’s Mira Hotel in 2013.

Snowden has its moments as the 60-year-old filmmaker hasn’t completely lost his keen visual touch. And thanks to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle who gives the proceedings a competent, but overtly obvious visual nod to 1984. It’s obvious that Stone is no longer the filmmaker he once was. As abrasive, polarizing, over-the-top, and frankly, annoying as he used to be, at least his films were once fearless and stood for something. Now they’re just dull.

Snowden - Movie Review

MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality/nudity
134 mins
: Oliver Stone
Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
: Drama | Mystery
The only safe place is on the run.
Memorable Movie Quote: "Terrorism is just an excuse."
Open Road Films
Official Site:
Release Date:
September 16, 2016
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
No details available.
Synopsis: Snowden stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and is written and directed by Academy Award®-Winning Director Oliver Stone. The script is based on the books The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding and Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena.

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