TL;DR – It’s not a bad film, but it is more boring that it should be given the exciting subject material.
Score – 2.5 out of 5 stars
Edward Snowden is one of those people that invokes a very polarising response from the general public, he’s either a hero or a villain, a patriot or a traitor with very little grey room floating around. Now when I first heard they were doing a movie about Snowden, I was really quite interested because as part of my day job I have actually taught about these issues like intelligence gathering, Five Eyes, Media etc. Also, the original documentary Citizenfour by Laura Poitras is an amazingly well-constructed documentary, informative while being thoroughly engaging, and truly worthy of the Oscar it received last year. So I was able to go see Snowden and how was the final product? … well um … unfortunately, it’s just a bit boring.
Snowden is a biopic about the life of Edward Snowden, now if that name means nothing to you, he was the former CIA/NSA contractor who leaked details of America and other nation’s intelligence gathering methods which mined data indiscriminately from their citizens in the guise of fighting terrorism. This was a big deal as intelligence agencies were engaging in what could be said as unregulated behaviour, and in this age of the digital life, this could have had or indeed is having significant restrictions on how we live our lives. So with this in mind, it is clear this movie’s goal is to cast Snowden in a very particular light, someone who is forced to engage in unconscionable conduct with regards to the data mining, who fights against the man to let people know what is going on. Now in this regard, I think the move does quite well, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is really quite convincing as the titular Snowden, even down to his mannerisms and speech pattern. As well as this, there were some nice locations shots that helped sell the global nature of the film. However, while the film may have succeeded in its goal to present Snowden as a sympathetic character, what it does not do is create an engaging narrative.
The main reason this film doesn’t work for me is that what you are hoping for is a big budget (or at least an ok budget) unpacking of the Snowden leak story, and part of that is there, but what you get for the majority of the film is a paint by number biopic of Snowden’s life, like a Hallmark made for TV movie only with name brand actors. The first issue is the structure of the film, it keeps jumping from the ‘leak’ (the events in 2013 which Snowden releases classified material to reporters of The Guardian) to events in Snowden’s life, in many respects it is a similar style that has been used in many films like the recent Deadpool [Review]. The problem is that what we get is this really quite exciting film for about five minutes and then it cuts to Snowden’s life and then we have to slog thought that for ages. Every time it jumps back in time you sigh because you have to wait for the film to get good again.
The reason why the biopic part of the film does not work is a combination of factors, firstly, it’s just not well done, it’s lazy with its symbolism, at one point it literally has a giant head speaking down to Snowden, gee I wonder what that is symbolising. As well as this, it goes through so many cases of Snowden’s inaction, once you have seen one the others just feel like a repeat. Also, there was no real chemistry between the two leads, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley have worked well in other films but I just didn’t buy their relationship here. And I mean [spoiler] when you jump from fake Snowden to real Snowden at the end of the film, I mean come on could you be any more made for TV film. Also, weird Nicolas Cage cameo is weird.
There are other really odd decisions with this film, it’s clear that one of the main reasons this was created was to give a platform for people to push for the American government to pardon Snowden (which let’s be honest is highly unlikely to occur before the election). However, for this to work you kind of want as many people as possible to watch your film, so it is perplexing that they have gone for an American R rating. Firstly, because it would hurt the sales for the film, and undercut one of the main reasons for the film to exist, but also, there was no need for it. The film could have lost all of its course languages and not lost any of its impact.
The thing that saves this film is that the scenes in the hotel in Hong Kong that link the different parts of this film together are actually quite good. This is because of Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto & Tom Wilkinson work really well and this really helps sell their motivations. Also, the flashback parts of Snowden start to pick up once things move to Hawaii, and this starts to make them bearable.
In the end, I can’t really recommend Snowden, which is frustrating because it is dealing with really important issues. Instead, can I recommend that you watch Citizenfour, it is a much more engaging and informative piece of work.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Oliver Stone
Screenplay by – Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone
Based on – The Snowden Files by Luke Harding & Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena
Starring – Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, Ben Schnetzer, Scott Eastwood & Nicolas Cage.
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: 14A; NZ: NA; UK: 15; USA: R