Monday 3 October 2016

Snowden (2016) - Movie Review

As a whole, 2016 has been a primarily emotional year for cinema, more so than any of the last few. From the heavy fan reactions to Ghostbusters and the DC cinematic canon, to the emphasis on pathos in some of the higher-profile releases of the year, filmmakers have been aiming mostly at the heart all year. Hell, just look at my current list of the year’s films that I’ve seen: The top is populated with films that focus intently on traits associated with the best of humanity like family, courage and community (albeit rather sexual community), while the bottom is populated by trash that exhibits the worst of humanity like sexism, racism and ableism. It is this need for more emotionally potent, yet relevant, cinema that is pretty much my only rationalisation for why this film exists at this point in time.

After last year’s as-close-as-we’ll-ever-get-to-the-subject documentary Citizenfour, I thought that details concerning the most infamous whistle-blower in recent memory would have been tapped out already. Then again, we’re in Oscar season and these sorts of stories are prime material for that brand of filmmaking, so it isn’t all too surprising that this exists, especially considering who made it. So, on top of delivering as a film in its own right, this biopic now has to prove its right to exist alongside a fairly in-depth feature that’s not even two years old.

The plot: Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a computer contractor for the CIA and NSA, discovers evidence of a vast network of covert surveillance being done by them on millions of people around the world. He arranges a meeting with documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) to release the information, all the while we discover how he came about the information and why he chose to go against his superiors and leak it.

The cast here is comprised mainly of actors whom have a reputation for, even in fairly disastrous productions, delivering memorable performances. The fact that this isn’t much of a departure for any of them in terms of aptitude makes that fact even better, because several of these actors have been deserving of better material for a while now. Shailene Woodley as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills may be badly characterized, but she still works around it to be an enjoyable performance. That, and she is unspeakably cute next to Gordon-Levitt. Leo brings a very motherly air to her portrayal of Laura Poitras, which might be doing the very fiery political filmmaker a slight disservice but she delivers nonetheless. Quinto is basically the id of the group, since his best moments come from when he’s flat-out roaring at the people around him. Wilkinson’s Scottish accent is a bit suspect, but he makes for a very welcome addition with his weathered presence.

Rhys Ifans and Timothy Olyphant as two CIA operatives that Snowden works with may be a bit basic in terms of portraying higher-ups in the government, but they do a good job between them of illustrating the deceptive nature of their work. And just to drive the point home, Nicolas Cage. He may only be in a couple of scenes, but fucking hell, the man has earned his right to be in a good movie for a change. Then there’s Gordon-Levitt as Snowden himself and, similar to his work on The Walk, it eventually stops being acting with him as his depiction of this martyr-complex-stricken desperate patriot is way too natural to be anything other than pitch bloody perfect.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Oliver Stone knew full well that he would have to compete with Citizenfour in terms of telling this story, and that’s evident in two main regards. One would have to be the direction of the film itself which, aside from Poitras’ in-universe camera work, also uses found footage montages similar to those found in most documentaries. These are mainly done to help illustrate the lack of secrecy at the core of this entire story, and they work well to that effect. They even avoid the mishap of having the found footage be of a drastically lower quality than the rest of the footage, making for some weirdly smooth transitions between the two.

The other aspect of Stone’s intent with the story that seems competitive would be how it is framed. In Citizenfour, while the subject was undoubtedly Snowden, it was more interested in the information he was delivering and who it would affect, both inside and outside of his hotel room. Here, it takes a more traditional biopic approach in that it focuses on events in Snowden’s life, some more removed from his whistle-blowing moment than others. I’d like to argue that this goes against not only the ethos of Citizenfour but Snowden’s intent as a whole, given that he always made it a point that his information should take precedent over himself. Then again, that would detract from how good the narrative is based on Gordon-Levitt’s performance alone. It may recline from certain elements of his ego that Citizenfour never shied away from, but as a means of better understanding his motives and his reasoning for said motives, this works very nicely.

For the most part, at least, and it’s here where one of the bigger issues with the film comes in: His relationship with Lindsay Mills. Now, once again, Woodley does a good job with the character she’s given, but then again, her experience with the Divergent films show that she is more than capable of working past bad writing. Their introduction is good and all, showing a certain matching of wits that make them a good couple, but for the most part, she’s mainly just portrayed in this overly sexualised manner. They try to use this to narrative effect during the film’s one sex scene, but otherwise she just feels rather blandly written with that in mind. I don’t have any issue with sexualised characters, but there’s a difference between sexuality informing the character and sexuality being the character. There are moments of intellectual equality and she rightfully gets worried once the events to start to kick in, but man oh man, it’s rare that a character will annoy me to this degree. Her scene with Snowden regarding his epilepsy, which is half-accurate from what I understand of the condition, ends up doing both of them a disservice as he comes across as determined to a degree that doesn’t make real-world sense (or even medical sense, for that matter) and she comes across as a bit of a waif who is meant to fill the required romantic interest for this kind of biopic.

There’s a profoundly silly air to the production as well, largely as a result of Stone’s political sensibilities; in that he wants to make for damn sure that you know what he is trying to say, regardless of your level of understanding. The dialogue has some pretty fun moments in how sharply it’s written in terms of character interactions, but it’s also very on-the-nose in place too. With conversations that will often just end on a slogan solely meant to reinforce the film’s themes (“There are other ways to serve your country”, “You can disagree with your leaders and still be a patriot”, etc.) and a dramatic line read that concludes with a red light washing over Snowden’s face, the phrase “Tell us how you really feel(!)” comes to mind a lot while watching this. This is further bolstered with how, for a film about a rather seedy aspect of American politics, this is an almost embarrassingly safe film.

It’s essentially the film that immediately comes to mind when you think of a Hollywood biopic about an infamous character, as it ticks all the boxes that are expected for that kind of story. I’m not just going to sit here and say that this film should have been exactly like Citizenfour, despite my earlier statements: That documentary was extremely fortunate in its circumstances and repeating that would not have been easy even for a master of the craft. What I am saying is that, when this film is clearly more than capable of getting across the paranoia and disquiet that the events breathed in, it shouldn’t feel this basic in its structure.

All in all, this is one of the more bare-bones examples of what Oscar bait is: A rather fawning depiction of a real-life figure that could easily be portrayed as more morally ambiguous than the filmmakers are willing to handle. Add to that the mishandling of Lindsay Mills and the occasionally laughter-inducing political touches, and you have a rather maligned feature. That said, this isn’t a difficult sit either, as the actors and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in particular make the ride worth taking.

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