They Are Always Watching

Oliver Stone

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Shailene Woodley

Using a hotel room in Hong Kong, 2013, we cut between the expose documentary/interview that brought Edward Snowden’s [Gordon-Levitt] revelations to light and the events in his life that brought him to do what he did. Before getting to how they plan on releasing the files that prove the NSA were illegally monitoring citizens from all over the globe, we spend a great deal of time humanising Edward himself, starting with his discharge from the army for health reasons. As a patriot, still wanting to serve his country, Snowden puts his extremely formidable programming skills to use for the CIA. From there he bounces around between agencies and private work, all the while learning that the simple surveillance programmes that are being designed are being repurposed to spy on ordinary US citizens.

I feel like an Oliver Stone apologist. My first review for this site was defending the much maligned Alexander and ever since I’ve been finding the silver lining in fairly mediocre releases. In truth, the 1980s and 1990s were a real golden age for Stone, his films were big and ballsy, attracting huge talent and questioning authority with a credible and powerful voice. Which is why it’s all the more disappointing that the highlight of the last 16 years hasn’t been a cinematic release but a televised documentary: Untold History Of The United States. Snowden offers the opportunity for him to return to form with an incredibly important and troubling subject matter but somehow he falls short.

This isn’t conspiracy theory, it’s fact. But admittedly it’s boring fact. Citizenfour, the shooting of which this film uses for its framework, brought into stark reality the horror of what has been going on over the last decade or so; surely a dramatised version could elevate that content and make it more palatable for a wider audience? Afterall, the same scrutiny of the 2008 housing-market crash was done so successfully by Margin Call and The Big Short. In truth, it’s quite difficult to ascertain exactly how and why Snowden fails to really hit all the right notes. The script is well written, explaining things clearly and framing the events in a compelling manner. The pacing is decent despite the padded runtime – but with a Stone release you just have to be thankful it doesn’t cross the three hour mark. The performances are credible and entertaining although there are a few sour elements. This should be enough to make a really solid, challenging release. Instead we have an acceptable feature that lacks the clear suspense and outrage that the real life events inspire.

One could argue that the film’s greatest achievement is propelling a talking point. At the end of the screening I attended, a young lady turned to her partner and asked, “What are you doing?” “Tweeting about the film?” “Chuck your fucking phone away, man!” The UK has just passed the painfully stupid and invasive snooper’s charter, allowing them access to more than any other democratic government on the planet and the general public are docile to it. This is notable as the film closes with part of a Snowden interview that poses one of the worst case scenarios wherein people become apathetic to this type of surveillance and it gets infinitely worse in the wrong hands. To my mind, technology is no different from gun ownership. Connectivity is a powerful but potentially dangerous thing and knowing that governing bodies have the ability (though not the right) to monitor you wherever you are for paper-thin reasons is appalling. So by all means live your life online but don’t be surprised if it goes off in your face because you weren’t using it responsibly.

And yet, the film actually makes a strangely compelling argument for “the other side.” Not in an impartial way, more as an accidental by-product of seeing these people up close. This was one of the biggest issues a lot of people had with Stone’s George Bush biopic W. Rather than militantly going after these people who have completely defiled public privacy and that of their closest allies, the script accidentally makes anti-heroes of them. While reassuring Edward that the ends justify the means, CIA Deputy Director Corbin O’Brian notes that for the last sixty years, we haven’t had an all-out World War 3 and the price we pay for that is perpetual skirmish wars abroad and constant monitoring of potential threats at home. While I don’t condone the ideology presented, it echoes what a lot of Americans already think: “Who cares if the government knows about the porn on my computer? At least we won’t have another 9/11.” And the film’s greatest sin is that it offers no immediate rebuttal.

But I’ve spent the majority of this review talking about the issue, not the film; an effect usually associated with a documentary. Is this enough? Is the fact it’s got me thinking about this key development in our societal evolution a praiseworthy point? In all honest, not exactly. I’m already there, I’ve been thinking about this since it first came to light. It’s the detractors and apathetic that this film needs to pitch to and a two and a half hour, jargon-filled, moderately tense character study isn’t going to cut it; especially not in a post-truth era. I could expand on the direction that feels like a different step for Stone, where the performances excel or fail, that the cinematography is slick and engaging, how the score is average at best or the script’s more nuanced elements but Snowden doesn’t deserve it. In what will no doubt be a regurgitated point in many reviews, this film was handed an extraordinary story and produced something very timid and unassuming. The parts that work do so extremely well but the rest is disappointingly flat, leaving the whole film feeling like a wasted opportunity.

Release Date:
9th December 2016

The Scene To Look Out For:
Part of the hindrance of Snowden’s job is his inability to directly talk about his work. Knowing that the NSA is spying on literally anyone and everyone, he starts using plasters to cover the cameras on laptops around his house. Without being to go into exact detail, Snowden explains to his frustrated girlfriend that she should be careful, to which she responds, “Why? I have nothing to hide.” This immediately riles Snowden as he starts to explain that everyone has something to hide or more accurately everyone has something about them that, if made public, could be used against those around them. There are plenty of great standalone scenes but this simple exchange acts as a riposte to the common fall-back of anyone who supports mass surveillance, specifically that they have nothing to hide. What they don’t realise is that if their opinions differ from friends or family in positions of power it can be used against them. Something Snowden highlights by explaining he gleaned information about her socialising online on the very dating site they met on.

Notable Characters:
As one often finds in life, Edward Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills are a weird mix. Snowden comes from a long line of US-serving conservatives who initially believes that to question the authority in charge is to question the country as a whole, whereas Lindsay is a camera-toting democrat with a flair for creativity and standing up to the system. Except neither is particularly true. Through exposure to the system, Snowden becomes more liberal in his outlook but what of Mills? A character that should represent the outraged liberal voice is reduced down to a nagging workshy stereotype. Whether that’s accurate to the real-life counterpart or not is largely irrelevant because in this narrative she serves a purpose, one which is butchered by a dithering character and Shailene Woodley’s attempt to break away from her young-adult fiction origins.

Highlighted Quote:
“Bombs won’t stop terrorism, brains will. And we don’t have nearly enough of those”

In A Few Words:
“A decent enough experience that should have been so much more”

Total Score: