I had wanted to see this in theaters, but weak reviews and, you know, life kept me away. Then there it was for streaming, and me and my friend interested, and wha-BAM! Watch it we did. It’s not at all as bad as the reviews made it out to be—in fact, it’s quite good with flaws—but it faces a lot of uphill challenges, which it faces with different attempts at solutions.
The first challenge is to make typing at keyboards exciting and pulse-pounding, which it attempts through energetic editing, arresting shots and really loud pounding techno music. The second challenge is to convey large amounts of information about how the internet works, how the “global war on terror” works, how internet security works, how hacking works, and why all of it should matter to us in our daily lives. The third challenge is that Edward Snowden is apparently a quite milquetoast character and almost none of what he does is done through action, so we’re stuck with a lot of typing and conversations… and a movie that’s too afraid to center on ideas and tension and just be a quiet cerebral thriller, in the manner of Michael Clayton or something like that.
We join Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden being rejected from the military, but accepted into a cyberterror training unit, where he devises a piece of software that, due to its improper use later, becomes the catalyst for his stealing of classified documents. Rhys Ifans plays his instructor, and is fucking fantastic—far and away the best thing about the movie. Then, throughout the movie, Snowdon goes here, goes there, gets this job, loses that one, while he learns about the shadowy things the government is doing that he thinks are crossing the line. During this, he has a relationship with Shailene Woodley, who has to work hard to overcome her nails-on-chalkboard voice and the essential whininess of her character—although I’m happy to say that she eventually does. Also on hand to blow everyone else away in his brief scenes is the ever-excellent Timothy Olyphant. Gordon-Levitt does what he can, and is quite good and restrained, but as I said, his character is a man of principle, not action, and this movie has made the decision to try [and fail] as a pulse-pounding mainstream action thriller, instead of succeeding as a small-scale political thriller based on ideas. One senses that this decision was made by writer/director Oliver Stone because of the topic’s >>>!!!HIGH IMPORTANCE!!!<<< and CRUCIAL MESSAGE for TODAYS TROUBLED TIMES!!!! And moviegoing audiences, of course, responded that they really just don’t fucking care.
As we were watching it, my friend was telling me that the interview segments were recreations of scenes that are shown, while actually happening, in the documentary Citizenfour, and were much more gripping there. The movie unfolds pretty much as expected, wringing drama out of Snowdon’s moral dilemma and his slowly dawning rebel consciousness, but the fact remains that moral dilemmas are not very cinematic, especially if you’re trying to make an exciting blockbuster… one for which we already know the ending. The ending of this film is pretty much a catastrophe, as Stone decides to make sure everyone agrees that Snowdon’s act was a courageous act of heroism by slathering the whole thing with music just slightly less subtle than “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and cutting to the real Snowdon in his apartment in Moscow. The appearance of the real Snowdon is quite obviously there to assure us that this is the official, approved, sanctioned version of the story, but—accompanied by the soaring music of righteousness achieved—it came off more as a smug pat on one’s own back by Stone, and left a bad taste in my mouth just as the film was heading out.
Still… all that said… it’s pretty good. It does an okay job of explaining the issues, and does an okay job of showing both the personal stakes and the political and moral issues. I know we’re living in a fucked-up movie world where mid-level pictures can’t really exist anymore, but this really should have been a mid-level political thriller of ideas, because it just can’t compete with the action tentpoles, and forcing it to try isn’t doing it any favors.