The very existence of Snowden—Oliver Stone’s dramatic take on intelligence-gathering whistleblower Edward Snowden—qualifies as a political statement. In its pop-culture placement of Snowden as protagonist, Snowden proposes the man as a hero for posterity. Since Stone and Snowden are both political lightning rods, many people will have none of the film and its suggestion, but here it is: Edward Snowden as romantic lead. Stone effectively streamlines Snowden’s story for mass consumption, edification, and identification.
We first see Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) twiddling a Rubik’s Cube to identify himself to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto). The screenplay for Snowden is not unlike that Rubik’s Cube, a challenging dramatic puzzle that Stone and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald cracked through extensive research and two source books: Luke Harding’s non-fiction The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man and Snowden lawyer Anatoly Kucherena’s roman à clef Time of the Octopus. An evident third piece of source material is Poitras’ 2014 documentary Citizenfour, which depicted Snowden holding court with Poitras, Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) in a Hong Kong hotel room. Stone recreates these 2013 meetings as the anchor of a narrative that flashes back to fill in Snowden’s story, and the result is a Born on the Fourth of July for millennials: the story of an all-in, conservative-minded patriot fated for disillusionment.
Taken on just those terms, Snowden fascinates as a bookend to Stone’s ’60s-bred brand of cynicism and frustrated patriotic idealism: for a time in which personal computers and video cameras fit in the palms of our hands, and cyberspace is a primary conduit of human contact both professional and personal, the most disturbing international crimes and the most radical protests can come with the tap of a key or touchscreen. Stone tracks Snowden from his 2004 training as a Special Forces candidate in the U.S. Army Reserve (a path disrupted by crippling injury) to his CIA education (under mentors played by Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage), a flirtation with field work (with Timothy Olyphant’s CIA agent), and work as a cyberstrategist contractor for the CIA and NSA. (Snowden's NSA supervisor—jokingly dubbed "Captain America" is portrayed by Scott Eastwood, who Stone puckishly plays against his father Clint.)
All along the way, Snowden depicts the stresses on its hero’s psyche as a man who knows too much (including “camera phobia,” given what he knows of domestic intelligence gathering through laptop and cellphone cameras), on his relationship with liberal-minded girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), on his physical wellbeing (in troubleshooting epilepsy), and on his moral sense as a global citizen. Unable to confide in Mills, Snowden cuts a lonely figure as he comes to his decision to steal classified information and leak it to the world, sacrificing a lifestyle in the process. Gordon-Levitt does an expert job of embodying Snowden in both the preternaturally calm earnest-nerd demeanor we’ve come to know—down to his vocal pitch and patterns—and in those rare private moments that unnerve him and which Snowden can uniquely depict as drama.
Stone gets in shots at drone warfare, shifty political rhetoric on intelligence gathering, our military presence in friendly nations with the cyber-tendrils of "sleeper programs," and privacy rights, with Obama taking plenty of hits. At an impending legacy moment for the president—and with Snowden's legal future still in the balance—Snowden is a timely provocation with real potential for sociopolitical influence. "This is not about terrorism," Snowden concludes. "This is about economic and social control." (For good measure, Stone includes in the closing titles soundbites of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and erstwhile candidate Bernie Sanders voicing views on Snowden.)
This is storytelling that’s tamped down on purpose, a sign of the times and of the ways and means of what Cage’s character calls “military-industrial happiness management.” Though the film is expertly lensed by Oscar-winner Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), Stone mostly eschews florid visual style (the exception being Snowden's epileptic fits). Rather, Stone focuses on his other signature skill: polemical dialogue. In one scene, Ed deconstructs the "I have nothing to hide" privacy argument, calling it "such a bullshit line," and although Ifans’ CIA officer curdles into more or less a stock villain, he’s also allowed to articulate, at length, a legitimate argument in favor of U.S. espionage strategy.
Snowden is by no means perfect: it’s forced into a handful of narrative simplifications (some as legal protections for Snowden and his confederates), Stone worries himself into one or two corny corners as concessions to entertainment value, and national-security concerns over Snowden's leaks arguably get short shrift. The last round of pontificating, by Snowden himself in new footage shot by Stone, feels unnecessary (while reminding us that this is an "authorized biography"). But in 134 minutes, Stone asks American moviegoers to chew on quite a bit about privacy, patriotism, and politics, and in today's movie marketplace, that's a moral victory in itself.
Universal brings Snowden home (and in a way brings Snowden home) in its Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD special edition. A/V is reference quality, with a perfect picture that's only ever not razor-sharp in detail when Stone switches formats (a style hallmark since JFK) to have a deliberately low-res shot. Color is true and vibrant, textures are palpable, and contrast is perfectly calibrated. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix ably attends to the mostly humble needs of the film's soundtrack. It's a dialogue-heavy film, and the words are always nicely prioritized and clear. Music also gets a full-bodied treatment, with some bass oomph, and there's some limited ambience provided by rear channels.
Bonus features conspicuously lack a Stone commentary, which should be a no-brainer for every Stone film. Nevertheless, what's here is significant and most welcome. The extras kick off with five worthy "Deleted Scenes" (8:51 with "Play All" option, HD): "Classroom," "Ewen Wants to Meet Ed," "Art Gallery," "Ed and Trevor," and "Retweets." "Finding the Truth" (3:57, HD) is the closest thing to a making-of featurette, but it's sadly brief. Still, given that it's less than four minutes, it crams in quite a bit, with B-roll from the set, clips, and sound bites from Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Shailene Woodley.
The jewel of the bonus features is "Snowden: Q&A" (41:00, HD), which was previously a live-by-satellite theatrical event. Critic and The Oliver Stone Experience author Matt Zoller Seitz moderates a discussion with Stone, Gordon-Levitt, and Woodley, with Snowden participating through an A/V hookup to Russia. It's a lively discussion, and includes some democratizing questions culled from Twitter.
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