Snowden


Edward Snowden in the military.

Edward Snowden in the military.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Ben Chaplin, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Nicholas Rowe, Bhasker Patel, Patrick Joseph Bymes, Christy Meyer, Robert Firth, Edward Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

Edward Snowden remains one of the most controversial figures of our time. There are those who label him a hero while others loathe him as a traitor. He polarizes opinion like nobody else and there are those on both sides of the political aisle that would like to see him answer for his crimes of revealing the NSA’s program of secret surveillance of the American people.

The movie has had a bit of a checkered history; it has been delayed at least twice, once to complete some of the special effects and the other to avoid competition from the major blockbusters. Once the film was released, it got almost zero support from its distributor and came and went from the theaters with little fanfare. Did it deserve that kind of fate?

Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) is an idealistic young man whose ideals are somewhat conservative. He joins the military, wanting to serve his country but a badly broken leg puts an end to his military service. Instead, he’s recruited by the CIA to write code and serve his country in a different way. His mentor at the CIA, Corbin O’Brien (Ifans) takes a healthy interest in the young man’s career.

He also meets Lindsay Mills (Woodley), a free-spirited college student who supports herself through exotic dancing. The unlikely couple form a close bond and soon have a budding relationship, even though she’s as liberal as they come and he’s a staunch rock-ribbed conservative. He ends up writing programs that help root out terrorists and keep America safe.

Then, as he switches to the more lucrative consulting position at the NSA, he begins to discover some disturbing things. For example, the phone surveillance program he wrote is now targeting everybody and is gathering so much data the NSA has to build huge facilities to store it all. So despite having a beautiful home in Hawaii, a lucrative job and a bright future, he decides to blow the whistle on all this patently illegal material.

He sets up a meet with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) in Hong Kong. He is clearly paranoid, expecting to be grabbed by NSA agents or the local police at any moment. But once Poitras and Greenwald have a chance to examine the documents, they realize they have the story of the century on their hands. It is just a matter of convincing their editors to allow them to tell it.

How you’re going to receive this film is going to depend an awful lot on how you view Edward Snowden. If you see him as a vile traitor giving state secrets to the media, then you’ll hate this movie. If you think he’s a heroic whistleblower who tried to put the brakes on what was clearly a morally heinous policy, you’re more likely to like this movie. Know going in that Stone is clearly in the latter camp and really doesn’t offer any sort of alternative viewpoint. It seemed to me that most reviews followed the political line; conservative movie critics tended to give it lower scores, more liberal critics higher ones.

So I’m trying to be as objective as I can, but it is difficult to filter out one’s own precepts. Gordon-Levitt I think does a very credible job as Snowden, capturing the cadences of his speech nicely although in a much deeper register than the real Snowden speaks in. Snowden is in many ways not the most charismatic of men so it’s hard to fault Gordon-Levitt for being a bit dry here, but he does seem to capture Snowden’s essential personality.

The rest of the cast is pretty strong – Ifans is virtually unrecognizable – but a lot of the big names are in for what are essentially cameos. Most of the film revolves around Snowden, Lindsey and the journalists. Basically, that’s enough to keep my interest.

I can understand some questioning that the movie makes Snowden to be something of a saint. I don’t think he is and I don’t think that he himself is above questioning by the filmmaker. Poitras, whose documentary on the events here CITIZENFOUR won an Oscar, painted a much more balanced picture of Snowden and in the process, made him more relatable. The Snowden here is a little bit less so because of that and I think it does the film a disservice to go that route.

There are some pretty good moments throughout the movie – Snowden’s initial meeting with the journalists, the events of his smuggling the data out of the NSA facility (a conjectural scene since Snowden has yet to and probably never will reveal how he actually did it) and the end scene when Snowden speaks to the TED conference via satellite – and Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real Edward Snowden, who gets the last word in the film fittingly enough.

It’s a well-made film – you would imagine Stone would at least produce that – but it’s more than just that. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the state of things, whether the price of security is too high or whether liberty trumps that price. We’ve got a lot to think about as a society, much to demand from our leaders. Snowden reminds us that sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing.

REASONS TO GO: Gordon-Levitt really captures the cadences of Snowden’s speech. It has the taut atmosphere of a spy thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks any counter-argument to make it seem more fair-minded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gordon-Levitt’s second straight film based on an Oscar-winning documentary; the first was The Walk which was the dramatic account of the documentary Man on Wire.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CITIZENFOUR
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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The Insider


The Insider

The young tiger and the old lion.

(1999) True Life Drama (Touchstone) Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Diana Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowski, Colm Feore, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn, Lynne Thigpen. Directed by Michael Mann

 

On one level, this movie could be taken as the story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the corporate whistleblower who braved much external pressure, death threats, the dissolution of his family and the pangs of his own conscience to step forward and point the finger at Big Tobacco, making several lawsuits against them possible.

On another level, this movie could be taken as the story of Lowell Bergman, the courageous producer who brought Wigand’s story to “60 Minutes,” and how he fought to air the story. However, what The Insider is really about is how big corporations whether Big Tobacco or Big Media run our lives in an insidious fashion. They determine what we see on the news, decide what we are allowed to say or not say. It illustrates, in a very subtle manner, how Orwellian our country really has become, and right under our very noses.

Russell Crowe stars in an Oscar-nominated performance as Wigand, a high-ranking scientist and corporate executive at a major tobacco company whose conscience and temper have recently gotten him fired. He has a daughter with a severe asthmatic condition, so medical benefits are paramount to him. His former employer is willing to keep those benefits in place as long as Wigand signs a confidentiality agreement, which Wigand does on two separate occasions (they choose to broaden the scope of the agreement early on in the film).

Bergman (Pacino) is referred to Wigand by a colleague to help him understand some scientific data. Eventually, it becomes clear that Wigand wants to talk and Bergman, realizing the enormity of what he has to say and the evidence in his possession, coaxes him along. Eventually, Wigand testifies in court and does an interview with Mike Wallace (Plummer) on the venerable primetime news program.

Except that CBS corporate doesn’t want to air the story. Nervous about possible litigation running into the billions of dollars at a time when the network is on the auction block, they effectively kill the story with the blessings of 60 Minutes producer Don Hewett (Hall) and Wallace.

It is watching the machinations behind the scenes that is almost as fascinating as Wigand’s own story, which could have made a movie riveting by itself. The tension that Wigand lives through here is palpable, and when you try to put yourself in his shoes, you only marvel at the man’s tenacity. Together, the two stories make for an extremely watchable movie. 

There is some acting here, from Crowe who began a run of incredible performances which would net him an Oscar (although not for this movie) to Pacino who was at his best here. Plummer channeled the late Mike Wallace nicely, even if it wasn’t a very flattering portrait always. Mann doesn’t always get enough credit for it but he seems to have a knack for pulling out superior performances from his actors in nearly all of his movies, going back to his days on the “Miami Vice” television show.

Well after this movie came out we saw just how devastating the lack of corporate conscience is to the economic health of this country, so in many ways this movie was prescient. When short-term greed for bottom line profits overrides common sense and dignity, the results are very much in evidence. Corporate greed is not the sole province of the financial industry; obviously it is prevalent throughout big business, and this was a movie that not only saw that but blew the whistle on it earlier than most. In that sense, it is a chilling precursor to what was to come and a grim warning to what can still occur if we don’t act. The Insider is a jolting reminder that all of us are touched in some way by the corporate culture of profit obsession that has lingered from the days of the robber barons and still is the defining aspect of American big business.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous, Oscar-caliber performances. Subject that is as relevant now as it was then.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language can get a bit harsh in places.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a feature called “Inside a Scene” which allows the viewer to read the director’s notes and script for a scene before viewing how the scene played out. It’s a fascinating concept but isn’t available for a lot of scenes here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.3M on a $90M production budget; the movie lost money in its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Whistleblower

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Battleship