By Josiah Wampfler
Snowden is quite appropriately Oliver Stone’s 1984. The George Orwell novel about a dystopian, authoritarian society in which mass surveillance of the populace is the norm is far too similar to the truths that Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 about our government’s own mass surveillance programs. Stone obviously saw the similarities and the influence of the Orwell classic is clear. Yet the world depicted in Stone’s film is our own and there is no escaping the terrifying truths it reveals. Unfortunately, unlike Orwell’s novel, you can’t escape Big Brother just by putting the book down.
When I first heard Stone was doing this film I thought the subject matter would be perfect for him and I wasn’t wrong. Snowden is his return to form. He has the right material to work with including a complex, interesting protagonist in Edward Snowden and a thrilling tale dripping with secrecy and deception. And he brings his uniquely compelling style as well as much-needed humanity to a story that could have easily have gotten too technical. The end result is a film that is both important in its subject material and captivating in its filmmaking.
Stone’s wholly unique style is what really makes this film stick out. In a month characterized by fairly conventional releases like Sully and Blair Witch, the director’s bizarre editing and unorthodox cinematography are a breath of fresh air. Stone’s interesting and sometimes strange camera decisions help keep the film clipping along at the right pace by diversifying the look of the film throughout. It is the first film he has shot on digital and he uses it to his advantage to make the film really feel digital. The color palette is quite vibrant, he constantly uses beautiful shots of extremely tight focus and the picture has a great amount of digital grain in it that just works. And Stone also uses the camera to portray the paranoia of the events wonderfully, especially in one particularly brilliant shot toward the end of the film of Edward Snowden standing in a board room talking to the enlarged head of his boss and mentor, Corbin O’Brian, on a wall-sized TV screen. The shot is absolutely chilling as O’Brian looms over our protagonist and makes some shocking revelations.
While Stone brings the style to Snowden, the cast brings the humanity. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden is phenomenal, as is Shailene Woodley as his girlfriend, Lindsey Mills. The film smartly makes the relationship between these to the emotional through-line of the narrative. Though the film largely presents Edward Snowden in a very favorable light, it is in this relationship that we see the flaws of his character. He is overly-obsessed with his job, does not give their relationship the attention it deserves and says hurtful things when they fight. He is not perfect, which is what makes him a good character. And both Gordon-Levitt and Woodley do a wonderful job portraying two normal, imperfect people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Gordon-Levitt even manages to nail the voice and mannerisms of Edward Snowden. So much so, that it is somewhat hard to distinguish the two when the real Edward Snowden makes a cameo appearance at the end.
My only real gripes with the film are its length and Nicholas Cage. The film is a long 2 hours and 14 minutes, and even though Stone manages to keep up the pace throughout, the film still feels long. There are a couple of scenes here and there that, while entertaining, don’t feel entirely necessary. So perhaps a bit shorter cut would have helped. And with Cage, his character is almost completely pointless and I just can’t take him seriously anymore. It kind of felt like Stone helping out an old friend and not really serving the story.
Still, Snowden remains a pretty powerful piece of filmmaking. It tackles a story that is incredibly important and does it in a way that is stylistically impressive and emotionally connective. And it actually pairs quite nicely with the documentary Citizen Four, which delves into the more technical aspects of what Edward Snowden revealed about our government’s surveillance programs.
What the NSA was and still is doing, gathering large amounts of personal data from its own citizens, is something that needs to be talked about and currently that conversation is not happening. Both major party candidates for President this year have barely touched the topic and it is my hope that this film will equip more Americans with the information to intelligently discuss what the limits of government intelligence should be.