Sunday, September 25, 2016

Snowden

3.5/4

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood

Rated R for Language and Some Sexuality/Nudity

Oliver Stone has never been afraid of controversy, nor has he ever hidden his liberal political beliefs.  His latest film, "Snowden," shows both qualities and wears them with honor.  The film's subject, Edward Snowden, has been dogged by controversy ever since he went public with what he knew, and Stone sees him as a martyr against government snooping.  Whatever your politics may be, "Snowden" is definitely worth seeing because it is one of the year's best films.

Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) just wanted to serve his country.  After injury (actually, a series of them) forces him out of the infantry, he goes to work to provide computer security.  This leads him to the CIA and the NSA, and eventually a contractor.  But the increasingly terrifying behavior of the surveillance programs and the ugly usage of the helpful programs he designed cause disillusionment, not to mention paranoia, to set in.

"Snowden" is riveting.  It's informative and Stone assembles the material in a compelling manner.  He also finds the sweet spot between dumbing down and technobabble (most of the time).  It's fascinating stuff, and there are times when Stone uses documentary techniques (CGI, little animations, etc.) to illustrate what's going on.  Stone also allows the tension to build slowly.  We begin to understand and feel Ed's paranoia.  This is key because it allows us to understand why he did what he did.

One thing that is interesting is that a lot of the details are far scarier than the mass data snooping.  Like, how the data is being used to further petty political conflicts.  Or how the government installed malware in other countries' security systems (which were installed without their knowledge) that they can turn on if they ever become our enemies.  This stuff is much creepier.

The performances are solid, with Stone populating his film with some of the best young talent in the business.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who probably had hopes for an Oscar nomination (one that is long overdue), gives one of his best performances here.  He does the impossible: bring life and energy to a mild-mannered individual.  That's a testament not only to his talent, but his genuine presence and appeal.  His co-star Shailene Woodley is as appealing as ever and holds her own against Gordon-Levitt.  She doesn't have a lot to do other than be the oblivious/emotionally frustrated girlfriend, but she's such a gifted actress that I didn't mind much.  No one else has much screen time except for the trio of journalists (Quinto, Leo, Wilkinson) who are preparing to break the news to the world.  Special mention has to go to Rhys Ifans, who plays Ed's handler/mentor.  The British character actor is splendidly creepy, and deserves an Oscar nomination (that he won't get).

Oliver Stone is certainly playing with fire here, and that's just where he likes to be (this is the guy who made "Natural Born Killers" and "JFK").  This is a fascinating movie that is always compelling.  Flaws are few, but noticeable.  One thing is that, even at two and a quarter hours, it's too short.  There are some scenes that were apparently left on the cutting room floor and more background on Ed's programming would have helped too.  That important element is given the short end of the stick.  Perhaps Stone is going to come out with a Director's Cut.  Regardless, I'm going to see it again to pick up what I missed.

Regardless of your opinion of Snowden, your time would be well served by seeing this movie.

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