By Michael Kaye
Happy belated birthday to director Oliver Stone, who just turned 70 on September 15th. The man's been making movies for over 40 years, directing some of my all time favorites such as Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July and Natural Born Killers. Unfortunately, those were all in the 80's and 90's, and since then the fire just hasn't been there. But like Roger Ebert always says, "every film deserves its day in court," and you have to go into everything with at least somewhat of an open mind, and that's exactly what I did for his latest film Snowden, based on Luke Harding's book The Snowden Files and Anatoly Kucherena's novel Time of the Octopus.
Here's the story. The NSA's illegal surveillance techniques are leaked to the public by one of the agency's employees, Edward Snowden, in the form of thousands of classified documents distributed to the press.
I can't really say I'm disappointed, because even though I wanted to love this movie, I had a feeling it just couldn't live up to any sort of expectations. That being said, for reasons I'm about to explain, I at least give it a soft recommendation, especially if you have never seen the documentary Citizenfour. Here are my positives and negatives.
*Possible spoilers ahead*
First off, the absolute best thing about this movie is the cast. What a weird coincidence it is that for the second year in a row, Joseph Gordon-Levitt finds himself starring in a feature film that covers the same narrative ground as a critically acclaimed documentary. Don't get me wrong, his performance is great and at times he really does get lost in the role, I just find that coincidence hilarious. You know what's not hilarious? People who insist on underestimating Shailene Woodley, who gives probably her best performance in a very long time as Snowden's girlfriend Lindsay Mills. I don't care how much you hate the Divergent franchise, she is much better than those films allow her to be. There's great performances from everyone, including a very minor supporting role from Nicholas Cage as Hank Forrester, Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto as Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, Tom Wilkinson as Ewan MacAskill, and Rhys Ifans as Corbin O'Brian.
The story itself is a fascinating one. I personally have never seen Citizenfour, but I at least have a passing familiarity with what Edward Snowden has done in those 9 years from 2004 to 2013. I commend Oliver Stone for bringing this story to the big screen, while also exploring the relationship between him and Lindsay. When we get to the negatives, I'll explain why the execution was faulty, but it's not fair to slam the movie for at least attempting to add a more human element to the narrative.
I'm not seeing a lot of people mentioning his name, but I'm going to give a shout out to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. While he's certainly no Roger Deakins, there are still plenty of great shots sprinkled throughout the film, especially those rare moments where we see Ed and Lindsay enjoying the great outdoors.
The only other positive I have is for the music composed by Craig Armstrong. It's nothing that extraordinary per se, but it gets the job done, doing the best it can to bring some excitement into the film. He's worked with Oliver Stone a couple times before on films like World Trade Center and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Technically speaking, there's nothing "wrong" with this movie. That being said, its one major flaw has everything to do with Oliver Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald's execution.
Let me be a little more clear, my problem with this movie isn't necessarily exclusive to Oliver Stone, though it's obvious that he's framed the narrative a little more one sided to make Snowden appear more heroic than perhaps he was in real life. No, my problem is kinda similar to what I talked about in my Beatles editorial: too much happened in that 9-year span, and because of that the story didn't really have enough focus. Perhaps a more interesting story would have been just to focus on the "present day" scenes in 2013, when Glenn Greenwald was working with the Guardian to get the story out to the public. Instead, it felt like I was watching two different films smashed together, and both could have been fine on their own.
As I said, Snowden is still recommended, but you don't have to pay full price to see it. If you're as big of a JGL fan as I am, he and the rest of the cast are at least enough to carry the film into "watchable" territory. But if you're going to pass on this film because of your lack of faith in Oliver Stone, I may not be happy about it, but at least I'll understand.
I am genuinely curious to hear from you guys on this one. Have you seen Snowden, and if so what did you think? Also, what's the next film you'd like to see either Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Shailene Woodley star in? Drop your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned as always for more awesome content coming your way!