Snowden a case of real life drama trumping Hollywood
Oliver Stone's new movie dramatises a series of secret interviews with CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden but, aside from an assured performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Damon Smith wonders what it adds to the Oscar-winning documentary based on the same clandestine conversations
IN FEBRUARY 2015 documentary film-maker Laura Poitras deservedly won an Oscar for her riveting picture Citizenfour, which charts the events leading up to Edward Snowden's decision to go public as the CIA contractor who leaked sensitive material belonging to the National Security Agency (NSA).
In her film, Poitras conducts a series of secret interviews with Snowden holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong in the company of investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian's defence and intelligence correspondent Ewen MacAskill.
When Snowden's whereabouts leaks to the media, he moves to Poitras's room and her film becomes a fascinating portrait of a man on the run from his own government.
This real-life story torn from global news headlines provides the inspiration for Oliver Stone's character study, which dramatises events that took place between 2004 and 2013 with occasional brushstrokes of artistic licence.
For anyone who saw Poitras's documentary, Snowden is a redundant exercise in glossy repackaging.
Curiously, it's a film lacking in director Stone's trademark fire and brimstone, and his pedestrian trawl through recent history only sparks to life thanks to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's assured central performance as the beleaguered NSA whistleblower.
Snowden opens with Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) meeting Edward (Gordon-Levitt) in Hong Kong. They place mobile phones in a microwave in Edward's room – a security measure to prevent surveillance tracking – before he recounts his life story in a series of flashbacks.
He recalls his training with the US army, which leads to a position at the CIA under unit director Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans). "Secrecy is security, and security is victory," O'Brian tells his young charges.
Edward's impressive coding skills propel him on the fast track to writing programs that will protect sensitive NSA data. Meanwhile, he begins dating Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who stands by Edward as he embarks on his momentous course, but is also his voice of conscience.
"It's like I'm on a trajectory I can't turn back from," laments Edward.
"You can always turn back," replies Lindsay sternly.
Snowden is a polished, if suspense-free, political thriller for our surveillance-heavy times that shines a sympathetic light on the lead character. Stone's screenplay, co-written by Kieran Fitzgerald, fails to sketch events outside of the Hong Kong hotel room in sufficient detail to give a clear sense of the multiple moral dilemmas and the terrible repercussions.
Gordon-Levitt delivers a measured performance, teasing out Edward's naivete as he delivers the script's barnstorming key speeches in favour of disclosure: "It's not about terrorism. Terrorism is the excuse. It's about social and economic control."
Footage of the real Snowden during the film's closing moments is a reminder of the superiority of the Citizenfour documentary. Real-life voyeurism trumps Hollywood dramatisation.
SNOWDEN (15, 134 mins) Drama/Thriller/Romance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson, Scott Eastwood. Director: Oliver Stone