Right now, two of the things we are talking about the most are Russia and hacking. And yes, they are linked. Just in case you don’t know, many are accusing Russia of hacking the Democratic Party in the USA to help Donald Trump win the election and become a president. Over the last week, more rather interesting stories have come out relating to this, meaning hacking is once again the topic of choice at the water cooler. And as I am not one to shy away from controversy, I’m going to take on a film about controversial figure that is related to both hacking and Russia. That film is Snowden.
After being discharged from the army, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception) soon gets a job at the CIA and starts working in their clandestine operations. However after years of working for them and the NSA, he becomes more and more disillusioned with the hacking and leaks the whole operation to The Guardian.
As much as the word hacking is a dirty word right now, it was certainly one when Snowden’s story was published in 2013. Intellectuals argued whether Snowden should have leaked the material, whether we should know how much the government listens in on us or that the national safety of the country matters more. It is an interesting debate for sure, a classic liberty vs safety argument, and it made Snowden a folk hero for some and a traitor for others. And when the controversial left-wing director Oliver Stone (Platoon) became attached to the project, it made this film far more interesting simply because it seemed obvious it was going to take a side. That this would end up being a piece that made Snowden out to be a modern hero and the higher-ups of the CIA to be evil people who spend all day giggling at your dick pics. You may not agree with it, but it would certainly be a statement.
However unlike his British contemporary Ken Loach, whose films are essentially socialist rallies at this point, Stone seems to be getting a more balanced as he gets older and is actually willing to give us the other side of the argument. While the upper guys at the CIA and NSA are definitely positioned as villains, they are given time to put out their arguments. They have the time to make the point the reason the government spies on everyone is to stop terror attacks and yes, they know it’s wrong when they are listening in on innocent people but if it stops an event like 9/11, it’s worth it. Maybe the film would make more of an impact if it was more biased, but there’s respect to be had in trying to paint a balanced picture.
And you know that hero-worship film that I expected? Yeah it’s quite the opposite because Snowden doesn’t actually get much of character, he mainly either spouts technobabble or listens to other being spout technobabble, and when he does, it turns out that Snowden was a bit of a duck. To begin with, that is the point as he begins the film as a devout Republican who believes that the country can do no wrong. But even when he has become a liberal and becomes questioning what his country is doing, he stills comes off as very selfish and unlikable. It’s very weird as it means you do struggle to root for him, and that will go for people who back his options too.
In fact, Stone struggles to create any likable characters, anyone you can get behind. Our other potential ‘heroes’ are Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley, Divergent) who is the most likable character, but that isn’t saying much. Most of her scenes are just arguments with Snowden and while she is the voice of reason in these arguments, you can’t like someone enough to care if all they are doing is shouting at another person. Then there is Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto, Star Trek) who literally does nothing in the film other than probe for exposition and then when he gets a big scene, all he is doing is bullying the US editor of The Guardian to make sure editorial oversight doesn’t happen. And yes, you can make an interesting film without likable characters. But this isn’t the sort of film that can do that and so is worse without one.
It does seem like I respect this film more than I like it, and yeah that is sort of the case but there is plenty to enjoy. Everyone involved puts in great performances, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt being very good at playing Snowden’s transition from patriot to into concerned worker. And while the exposition can be tough to sit through, Stone does work hard to make sure there’s a lot of visual stuff on-screen to make sure we don’t just fall asleep when someone doesn’t stop talking for about five minutes. It’s a well put together film.
When Snowden was being made with Oliver Stone at the helm, many feared it would just be a one-sided love in for man for who has far more shades of grey. And while this film is certainly on one side, it actually has far more balance than you’d expect and I certainly appreciate it for that. However while it succeeds in making sure there is actually a debate to be had rather than a lecture, it doesn’t succeed as a narrative because we have no one to root for. Our protagonists are unlikable, meaning we can’t behind their actions even if you backed what they did. And let’s face it, not everyone watching this film will understand or back Snowden, so unfortunately that is just something you can’t get past.