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Movie Review: #Snowden

The story of Snowden is fascinating - this one isn't.

Review by Matt Cummings

If the film documentary CitizenFour brilliantly raised fear of Big Brother to alarming heights thanks to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the new Oliver Stone biopic is meant to add a human face to one of the biggest stories of this decade. Too bad it fails in its mission, because while the topic is compelling, the film itself really isn't.

Injured while training to be an Army Ranger, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) decides to apply for the CIA, instantly winning the approval of his boss and instructor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) with his genius-level computer intellect. But Snowden's enthusiasm and early successes are soon marred when he realizes that his own government has been collecting data on every American by using the broadly-powered and redoubtable FISA protocols. For Snowden, the news is particularly devastating when he realizes his girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) is also being spied upon, if for no other reason than to make sure Snowden doesn't get out of hand. Faced with declining health and the prospect that millions of Americans are being lied to about their government's post-9/11 activities, Snowden makes a bold decision to leak the news and accompanying documents to two journalists (Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson) and a documentary filmmaker (Melissa Leo). Their revelations will soon blow open the doors on America's largest spy network, leaving Snowden without a home and the country's reputation on the hot seat.

Simply put, Writer/Director Oliver Stone struggles to keep our attention, hoping to weave the 2014 CitizenFour documentary into Snowden, as if both were meant to bookmark the experience as definitive editions of the event. But while Laura Poitras’ version is perhaps one of the best documentaries ever made, Stone's obviousness in his stance is sometimes painful to watch, because he makes Snowden so boring and the spy tech so Jason Bourne. There's the easily-labeled "Download these spy folders" scene that you wish someone would have shaken Stone to remind him that he's actually trying to make a smart movie, and that adding dumbed-down the tech is just insulting.

The movie is set up much alike another snoozer Sully, starting off as Poitras begins her filming and then moving back to the beginning of Snowden's story before picking it up after the files are released. It's a well-shot and cut affair, with solid (but unremarkable) performances from Gordon-Levitt and even Woodley. For the first time in awhile, I found her performance to be authoritative without feeling like she was painting her portrayal with crayons. Gordon-Levitt loves his character roles (see The Walk), which usually means you'll marvel at his acumen which almost overpowers the screen. He looks and even sounds like Snowden, but never really gets much deeper than that. Stone paints in such broad strokes - with good being good and bad being evil (see again Sully) - that neither Woodley nor Levitt never get a chance to grow into their roles. The same goes for the disposable cast, which includes semi-cameos in Nicholas Cage, Joely Richardson, and Timothy Olyphant. Each are perfectly-crafted caricatures whose DNA is locked in the moment our film begins.

Snowden isn't a total disaster, not by a longshot. Composer Craig Armstrong turns in an interesting 80's keyboard score that peaks my interest, and the film in general is bathed in warm colors and fabulous sets. But Stone's textbook gameplan - that to mistrust everything and seed hostility - does nothing to elevate the conversation about what we give up when allow our government to supersede The Bill of Rights in exchange for protection. That is perhaps the most important national debate that can be had at this time, and yet all Stone does is bore us to death with a step-above documentary that makes Snowden as dull as we all thought he was.

Snowden is one of those films that's meant to inspire fierce debate among moviegoers as they walk out. Too bad the content of those discussions will fall squarely in the "Boy, was that boring!" category and not where it actually should. Nonetheless, check out CitizenFour - it never plays the game safely, and is worth every ounce of its Oscar win. Snowden will merely make you want to cut to a chase that never really gets there.

Snowden is rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity and has a runtime of 134 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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