“I feel the modern media has a big focus on personalities, and I’m a little concerned that the more we focus on that the more we use it as a distraction, and I don’t want that. It’s why I’ve consistently said that I am not the story here.”
These are some of the very first words Edward Snowden says in Citizenfour, a 2014 documentary directed by Laura Poitras. Poitras investigated monitoring programs developed for a post-9/11 world and was among the first people contacted by Snowden after he fled the United States.
This is also where Oliver Stone’s new film Snowden begins.
The movie almost revolves completely around the Citizenfour interaction between Snowden—the National Security Agency contractor who absconded to Moscow with a cache of American government secrets in 2013—and Poitras.
The fatal flaw for me, however, is that the focus of Stone’s film, particularly compared to Poitras’ documentary, is specifically on the “personality” of Edward Snowden–something Snowden never wished.
A couple of years later, and Snowden has been trapped in Russia for some time. I would argue that after all the headlines, people want to meet and learn about Edward Snowden the whistleblower. That’s why the dialogue the movie Snowden strives to drum into the minds of viewers isn’t necessarily the conversation over privacy and national security Snowden started.
Not to say it doesn’t play a part in the film. You watch an idealist slowly realize his world is molding into something more insidious, something he obviously saw as wrong. However, the conversation that sprouted in my mind wasn’t about security and privacy, it was about bringing Snowden home. The idea I get from the movie isn’t what Snowden did, its who he was and why he did it.
Stone, the director and co-writer of Snowden, would tell you differently.
“We tried to go straight down the line and tell the story as dramatically, but factually as possible.”
Now I can’t deny that the movie is factual. The events come straight from Snowden’s accounts himself. The integrity of the film isn’t lost in Stone’s bid for accuracy. It is lost by making Snowden an icon and a personality.
Isn’t that the distraction that Snowden was worried about? Maybe I just like Citizenfour more, or just that I think Snowden misses a really big point. Even if it does have this incredible historical moment, it drowns in a long, uninteresting, romantic narrative. The biographical nature of Snowden makes it too hard to ignore the man and really focus on why what he did was so important. In the end, it almost feels a little empty because I’m learning about a man, not about what he achieved.
The movie itself is well constructed, not surprising as Stone has made some incredible movies such as: Platoon, JFK, and Wall Street.
His forte is American political issues, and he brings that power to Snowden. So for an incredibly hard subject, Stone does tackle it with grace. Using the making of Citizenfour as a flashback instrument helps us to the moment Snowden transformed from whistleblower from NSA contractor.
Impressive visually is the editing and camera work. I can remember two moments I thought the scenes came together extraordinarily well, instances where Snowden is questioned via lie detector. One is very early in the film where he is fully invested in the security game. Next is a more broken down, paranoid investigation, after Snowden becomes disillusioned by government efforts. The film also included Snowden’s epilepsy and it was also done well. In fact, the only gripe I have visually is the filmmakers didn’t include Snowden’s signature neck mole.
Also, I need to give props to Joseph Gordon-Levitt for nailing the lead character. From the mannerisms to the voice, I almost couldn’t tell that it wasn’t the man back from Russia, except for the lack of neck mole, of course. I mean honestly, at the end of the film there is a shot where Joseph is replaced with the actual Edward Snowden to speak, and for a good minute I didn’t even notice. Unfortunately, not all the actors were given that chance. I felt that Zachary Quinto, specifically, was underused as Glenn Greenwald, one of the reporter’s who helped break the Snowden story. Quinto really only has one moment in the film portraying Greenwald’s brash nature. Greenwald played a major role in Citizenfour.
In all, if you want to learn more about Edward Snowden himself, or just want to watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt really nail a role, then you should definitely go see it. If you are the one looking for an unflinching story about the nature of government surveillance and what it means to you, then you can still see this but you will notice it lacking. The fourth or fifth romance anecdote will tire you. In the end, you got to hear a little bit about the programs and government oversight, but you will never get down with the gritty paranoia of Citizenfour. Also, if you’re one who feels the need to label Snowden a traitor then maybe you should sit out as well, because there is no counterargument given in this movie.
I agree with Snowden the person, “I was never the story.” This film ultimately might just be a distraction.