365 Movies By Day Reviews of Movies I Watch that I Feel Like Writing About


Snowden (2016)

I did not see 2015's Citzenfour documentary about Edward Snowden. Had I, I might not have appreciated Oliver Stone's (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July) biopic as much as I did. I think part of the reason I was such a big fan of Snowden was that I knew very little about it prior to my viewing. Sure I knew of the Wikileaks and learned a lot from the news, but I didn't pay . Snowden went from your everyday no name to one of the most controversial figures of this century. Now if you think this movie is going to be completely neutral, you don't know Oliver Stone very well. Heck, this was the same main who directed JFK. His approach has always been very anti-government and with Snowden, it's no different. While I haven't loved all of his movies (Nixon, W., Alexander, Savages, even JFK wasn't really my thing), there are certainly more that I do like. Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July are both incredibly amazing while other movies such as Natural Born Killers and Wall Street were revolutionary. Snowden might be my third favorite. Snowden was definitely softer in tone and, maybe even the scope, but was, by no means, less controversial. I don't have a lot of complaints about the movie itself. Some people said it was too long. I did not feel that way. I guess that my only problem with it is that it didn't make Ed Snowden to be as controversial as he was. It made it same that whistleblowing on his country was the right and noble thing to do. For some, maybe most, it may have been. But what we weren't really shown was the "other side" of the story. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable film that really gave a great backstory for why he did the things that he did.

Everyday good guy Joseph Gordon-Levitt (500 Days of Summer, The Walk) plays the title role and we see him in a way that we've never seen him before. His voice is completely recognizable. I'm actually not sure how he was able to make his voice that deep for a movie in which he appeared in every scene. And he was by no means the same jovial guy that we've grown accustomed to seeing. Sure he's played some more somber or abstract characters (The Lookout, Brick, Looper, Mysterious Skin), but that's not what we remember him most as. And in Snowden, we see him in the role of a character with the blandest personality of all of the characters we've ever seen him play. Snowden was a bit of a loner without a lot of hobbies. But he still is JGL and he's an actor who we've grown used to seeing as the good guy. So for the story that Stone was trying to portray, he picked a guy we could root for. With a different take on the story with a different actor, I could see us disliking Snowden as much as Stone wanted us to like him in his version of the story.

If Edward Snowden hadn't been a real life character, this movie still could have been made by Stone. Stone has a certain propensity to create films based on once patriotic characters who become embittered with the country after learning of its fraud and deception. He did in Platoon. He did it in Born on the Fourth of July. He did it in Heaven & Earth. He did it in JFK. He even did it in a movie like Natural Born Killers. Snowden was his wheelhouse from the start and, for his take on the story, he did a really great job.

By definition, a whistleblower is a person who exposes any kind of information or activity that is deemed illegal, unethical, or not correct within an organization that is either private or public. The information of alleged wrongdoing can be classified in many ways: violation of company policy/rules, law, regulation, or threat to public interest/national security, as well as fraud, and corruption. Why wouldn't we want to have more of those people? Don't we want the companies that we are paying money to and the organizations that we are supporting to do things that are legal and ethical? I certainly do. I remember when I was a cashier at Safeway and a fairly decent percentage of the other checkers who worked the late afternoon/evening shifts were letting their friends come in and basically pay hundreds of dollars worth of stuff for pennies on the dollar either by abusing the instore coupon system or simply not scanning items and instead just putting them in a bag. It bothered me immensely. If they were doing it so often and so blatantly then I worried who else at that store or who else in the division or who else at other grocery stores were doing the same thing. We all know that theft is one of the things that causes the prices at stores to rise. Now while I thought it was completely wrong, I was just a 19-year-old college kid who worked at the store during the summer and on holiday breaks. I certainly wasn't going to say anything. When I went back to college that fall, I learned that a bunch of these employees had been caught and subsequently fired from their jobs.

So while I wanted to tell management, if nothing else through an anonymous note, to pay closer attention to some of these employees, I didn't. I didn't do it because I didn't think it was my place and I was scared. I can't imagine what Edward Snowden was thinking when he decided to blow the whistle on the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 by releasing thousands of classified documents without authorization to a trio of journalists who worked for the British newspaper The Guardian. This is where the story begins and ends and helps tie together a bunch of loose ends. The movie is mostly told through flashbacks though and, as I've stated in many reviews before when a movie director handles flashbacks the correct way, the movie can be outstanding. When he doesn't, it can be a disaster. Fortunately, Stone was the former throughout the storytelling of this movie. The result was that it was a captivating watch.

Snowden had one desire in life. And that was to serve his country as a member of the United States Army. When he was medically discharged due to a degenerative issue with his legs, he decided to use his mind to help defend the country that he loved. Hired by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and later the NSA where he learned more and more about computer networks, hacking, and, most importantly, protecting confidential information. And the more he excelled at his job, the more he was needed and the more he was filled in on the ways in which our country operated post-911. Because of his position and his level of skill, he learned more in a quick period of time about United States intelligence than 99.999% of Americans will ever know. Being just a geek with good intentions, Snowden was surprised to know the level of the surveillance that these organizations were conducting both domestically and abroad. He believed, naively like many of us, that the United States government was following its own laws and not conducting illegal searches and seizures. Little did he know about The Patriot Act (signed into law by then-President George W. Bush in 2001) that allowed the US to provide appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism as a result of the acts on 9/11. Basically, it gave the US Government the freedom of doing whatever it wanted to do and protecting itself behind this act.

As a result, Snowden saw lots of things he didn't want to see, including the killing of innocent lives of foreigners who were even remotely connected to those threatening national defense. Now to think that other countries aren't doing the same thing or wouldn't be doing the same thing if they had the same level of resources is absolutely absurd. Nonetheless, where is the line drawn between what we are capable of doing and what we should be allowed to do. Capable that with the fact that we were connecting thought to be terrorists with their contacts and sooner than you can say, "hey wait a second", half the planet is being watched illegally. Long story short, this didn't sit well with Snowden. He agonized over it and it weighed on his conscious until it got to the point where he had to do something about it.

Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now) has long ago since arrived. Already carrying a moneymaking franchise (Divergent), she's not quite Jennifer Lawrence, but she's not as far behind as people think. While she wasn't perfectly cast for this film (just as Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo, and Timothy Olyphant were either), Lindsay Mills' relationship with Edward was important. This carefree liberal who he quickly fell in love with and had some tumultuous times with while living in different parts of the world was one of the main reasons for him ultimately leaking his information. A guilty conscious could weigh on him no longer. He thought of the actions the NSA was having on innocent people all over the world and, though he knew he'd be labeled a traitor by many, it was worth it to him for the world to know the what illegal activities were being conducted.

Again, this is just Stone's take on the story. In his version of the story, Snowden comes across as a very sympathetic character who risked his life to do what he thought was the right thing to do. And, as mentioned earlier, Gordon-Levitt (who everyone likes) was the right man to play the lead. I was glad to see on Rotten Tomatoes, that this movie was listed just as a drama and biopic. There were moments where I couldn't tell if we were supposed to have suspense in some of the scenes, but if we were, they definitely weren't there. This was a gentler and more personable Stone film...one we really haven't seen from this accomplished actor before. I was appreciative for the detail and the development of characters who had to make tough decisions and how some of them were deeply affected by what they did or didn't do and some who weren't affected at all.

The film's not for everyone. If you know the story and deemed Snowden a traitor, you'll probably be angered by this movie. Not knowing all of the facts and almost always being willing to give a movie a chance, I was deeply impressed by how involved I became with it. I was worried it might be a little dry or that it would be so far over my head that I wouldn't like it. Neither of those happened and I enjoyed my experience. If nothing else, it made me want to go back and learn more about the infamous WikiLeaks of 2013. It was worth my $12 to see it in the theater. It might be for you as well.

Plot 7.5/10 (an important story to be told despite the well-received documentary Citizenfour which had just been released a year before...this was just one take on the story...and it was a very anti-government approach that focused on the lead character's actions and the way that the director chose to tell his story...a story that was controversial but always made it seem like Snowden was doing the right thing)
Character Development 9/10
Character Chemistry 9/10 (I've seen quite a few critiques kind of bash the relationship aspect between Edward and Lindsay wasn't need it and that it took away from the story and made it longer...I completely disagree...I thought it was integral to the storytelling and was needed, among other things, to help justify his decision)
Acting 9/10 (As much as I just said Lindsay was needed in the storytelling, the talented Woodley was a little overmatched by Gordon-Levitt here...and many other well-known actors (Wilkinson, Leo, Cage, Olyphant could have been played by lesser characters...Gordon-Levitt could have done this with a bunch of C-listers.
Screenplay 7.5/10 (again...it was just way too one-sided for me...if you don't know his story at all, you'd call Snowden a hero after this movie...if you did know the whole story in all its details, you might be more likely to call him a traitor...I really, really liked the movie, but it wasn't a full representation of everything that could have been shown in my opinion)
Directing 10/10 (never dull...and it could have been in the wrong hands...so props to Stone)
Cinematography 8.5/10
Sound 8.5/10
Hook and Reel 10/10 (I was into it the entire time...it never felt like it was too long)
Universal Relevance 10/10

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