Snowden (2016) by Oliver Stone
Review by Zach Dennis
The irony of the release date of Snowden is pretty astounding.
Weeks before Oliver Stone’s latest film was released, the country was overcome with a controversy surrounding San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his choice to kneel during the national anthem in protest of the killing of black individuals by police officers in America.
Naturally, this decision was met with outrage. “It’s our national anthem and he was born here, respect it,” said one 49ers fan to CBS Sacramento. NASCAR driver Tony Stewart referred to Kaepernick as an “idiot” on Twitter and said he needs to “learn the fact about police” before “running his mouth.”
Among the other reactions were memes featuring images of wounded soldiers with captions telling Kaepernick that this is what “true patriotism” looks like. But in a way, Kaepernick was enacting his patriotic duty by protesting an act in his country that he sees as injustice. “There’s a lot of racism disguised as patriotism in this country. And people don’t like to address that. And they don’t like to address what the root of this protest is,” he told CSN Bay Area after being asked about his decision.
Which brings us to Edward Snowden — the subject of the latest film by Oliver Stone and someone who’s patriotism is under constant scrutiny. Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a whistleblower. He was an employee of the NSA and leaked numerous classified documents through the press, which showed evidence of the United States government spying on the American people through the use of questionable programs.
For most of Snowden, we are introduced to a story we have seen before. If the Stone-directed film has one flaw, it is being released in a universe that featuresCitizenfour, the documentary that is being filmed while the narrative of this film takes place. Where Snowden brings the allure and tension of fiction into the story,Citizenfour works because it is what actually happened — and that is much more terrifying.
Snowden is a deeply flawed film. The movie runs long and falls into cliches in order to evoke the emotions of the audience, but it succeeds in at least posing the question of whether or not Snowden is a true patriot for what he did.
In this way, he is like Colin Kaepernick. While the 49ers quarterback is not an individual that risked his life leaking classified, incriminating government documents to the public, he does incite the rage of many people who view his acts as treason against the United States. But for Snowden, who Gordon-Levitt tries to lace with constant affection for his own country, his acts are to help America.
In one sequence, Edward comes across another government member while on a job who shows him how to tap into the cameras of unsuspecting American citizens. In this case, they are trying to find the weak link with a banker they’re trying to get information on and are able to activate a webcam on one of his daughter’s computers.
In the most damning sequence, which also features the film’s most evocative shot, Edward is called into a conference room following a medical episode that requires him to take a break. As Edward sits in the room — anticipating the other person to come walking in — the man instead appears on the wall in front of him, which is actually a giant screen. This man is Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who was the one who recruited Snowden to the NSA and has been mentoring him along the way. He asks Edward if he has done anything suspicious that the agency wouldn’t know about and Edward admits to doing some light snooping on his girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), when he was suspecting her of cheating on him.
Stone positions the camera so that O’Brian’s face completely engulfs Snowden’s silhouette and he tells the worried Edward that he has nothing to worry about with Lindsay and that she isn’t cheating on him with that other photographer he has been worrying about. Snowden hesitantly takes the positive news and returns home, but in a much more paranoid demeanor than before.
For most of Snowden, Stone is asking us to play judge for the man’s fate and for the most part, we have to think about how we define patriotism. Much like Snowden, we have to ask ourselves whether blind obedience to the country that has given us so much is the proper course of action or if betraying the country in order to do what you think is right is the actual definition of being a patriot.
In Snowden’s mind, he is as patriotic as the other men who work alongside him. He is bringing this information to the public’s attention because he thinks it is imperative that they know what the people in charge of their lives are doing with them and he is uncomfortable continuing to live in this lie that he has uncovered. Again, in a ways like Kaepernick, Snowden is risking his public persona — and to a greater extent his and his loved one’s safety —to perform an act that many will find to be wrong, but he is passionate about.
But this act seems like the basis of patrotism. A basis that led the country out of British rule in the 1770s and one that has dictated some of our most important moves in history. You may not agree with Snowden, but there has to be a base level of respect for the man and Snowden does its best to pass that along.
Snowden is an imperfect film that contains an incredibly timely message that weaves into the fabric of pop culture. In this way, Stone is returning to his roots even if he couldn’t have anticipated the actions of Colin Kaepernick when he was working on the film.
But by not knowing, Stone tapped into a point that Kaepernick has been trying to make throughout his entire protest — this issue whether police brutality or government surveillance is something that is happening around us whether we know it or not and one act didn’t trigger it. The only thing it triggered is a discussion.
And while Snowden is imperfect, it did the same thing.