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Snowden: Movie Review

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Secrecy = Security = Victory. It’s the mantra by which the CIA and NSA operate in Snowden, Oliver Stone’s latest film. There’s something deeper than paranoia or mistrust lurking within the walls of these American organizations. We get the sense this is the case from Corbin O’Brian, a senior officer in the CIA recruiting top-talent from across the country to fight terrorism in a post-9/11 world. In the movie, he sits down to interview Edward Snowden, a mild-mannered computer geek who reads as confident but never arrogant. “Why do you want to work for the CIA?” O’Brian asks. Snowden can’t help but smile before he gives an honest but possibly wrong answer, “Because, sir, it sounds really cool to have top security clearance.” Normally, O’Brian informs Snowden, that answer wouldn’t fly. It’s desperate times for the CIA, however, and someone of Snowden’s caliber can’t be ignored. He lands the job.

snowden-3But what is the job exactly? Preventing a second 9/11. At least that’s what Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) tells Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his fellow recruits. What Snowden starts to learn, and us along with him, is that there’s a hidden agenda behind all this talk of preventing terrorism. He’s really working to protect the supremacy of the United States government by establishing socioeconomic control over the rest of the world. How does Snowden do this? By helping the CIA (and later the NSA) spy on every soul on this planet. This becomes the central issue at the heart of Oliver Stone’s movie.

One of the earliest Oh-Jesus-F#!*ing-Christ moments arrives when a colleague named Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer) lets Snowden in on an NSA secret for which he doesn’t have security clearance: the NSA program known as XKeyscore. This program makes use of the world’s top internet companies and search-engines (Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc.) to allow top-clearance personnel to poke…well, anywhere. There are no firewalls, no barriers, no limits to this frightening database. Anyone with clearance can gain access into every person’s life via emails, texts, mobile devices, webcams and even computer screens. The more technology-dependent you are, the scarier all of this sounds. How frightening that the government can peer into the most intimate aspects of your life, right? Even Snowden, who later begins to design an improved cyber-spying program, grows paranoid to the point that he’s covering his and his girlfriend’s webcams with bandaids.

snowden-5It’s no spoiler to reveal that Snowden ends up doing the “right” thing by going public with this information in 2013. Oliver Stone allows his movie to exist on two different timelines. We cut back and forth between the 2013 interview in Hong Kong with The Guardian and everything that lead to that moment. Stone uses this back-and-forth cutting device as a way to try to build suspense and gain momentum in addressing the central issue at hand. Unfortunately, this device is also the first frustrating element of the movie. For starters, why choose to cover the interview when we can just watch the 2014 documentary Citizenfour to see the actual footage? It’s surprising that the director who probed so earnestly and intimately into the disillusion of veterans in Born on the Fourth of July, so unflinching into the Shakespearean tragedy that characterizes Robert Nixon’s presidency in Nixon, and so boldly and unabashedly into the murkiness of American historicizing in JFK can’t seem to find a new or simply interesting approach to this climactic interview. What’s more baffling is why he even chose to include it in the first place, since one, another film already covered the real thing, and two, ditching it would have given him more time to explore the possible questions tugging at Snowden’s psyche: Has cyber-spying really prevented a Third World War? Is such detailed and intimate cataloguing necessary for the security of the United States and the world? Is it really impossible, as some characters in the movie hint, for security and freedom to coexist in the same plane? If so, which do we choose?

snowden-1How these questions are addressed (or not) is also the second and most upsetting drawback about Stone’s movie. Snowden doesn’t allow any room for a debate to actually take place. There’s a crucial scene close to the end of the movie where Snowden calls three colleagues’ attention to some eye-opening numbers about the NSA’s cyber-spying results. We see how torn the characters are about not only the efficacy but the ethics of such questionable methods. The movie works so ably to antagonize the bigwig organizations (the CIA and NSA) and redeem, even glorify, Snowden by the end that the debate is already over before it’s even begun. As we watch Snowden, there’s never a doubt from how Stone shoots this movie that what Snowden did in the end was correct. It’s so one-sided that it undermines the possible second-guessing Snowden probably faced as he prepared to go public with the NSA’s secrets. Not that anyone wants to side with a government infringing on our privacy rights? But Stone used to be someone who pulled the rug out from under us by challenging even our most grounded ideas about larger-than-life individuals and institutions. If he didn’t convince us to forgive Nixon in Nixon, he at least humanized the man and softened our prejudices. After all, isn’t that what we so used to love in Oliver Stone movies? His ability to act as some kind of provocateur for the zeitgeist. But Snowden lacks Stone’s early warts-and-all approach so damn impressive about his earlier movies. It kills any conversation we might have entered. The debate has been won by the time the movie starts. Too bad, because it would have been something else under Stone’s halcyon days.

Snowden (2016)
Director:  Oliver Stone
Studio:  Open Road Films
Genre:  Drama, Suspense
MPAA:  R
Release Date:  September 16th, 2016
Author:  Braulio Ramirez

Braulio Ramirez Braulio Ramirez is a graduate from the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in history and contributed to The Daily Californian as a movie critic. He currently resides in San Diego, California, where he was born and raised, and now spends most of his time discovering new coffee places to load up on caffeine and inspiration. On his spare time, he tries to write.

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