[Screen It]

"SNOWDEN"
(2016) (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A computer programmer and analyst slowly loses faith in the U.S. government in terms of privacy issues and digital eavesdropping on U.S. citizens.
PLOT:
It's 2013 and former CIA and NSA analyst/programmer Edward Snowden (JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT) is in a Hong Kong hotel ready to divulge what he knows about U.S. cyber spying on foreign governments and U.S. citizens to reporters Glenn Greenwald (ZACHARY QUINTO) and Ewen MacAskill (TOM WILKINSON), all while documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (MELISSA LEO) records all of what transpires.

As he starts to tell his tale, the film rewinds to 2004 when Edward gets an honorable discharge from the military -- from a busted leg -- and goes to work at the CIA. Under the tutelage of senior instructor Corbin O'Brian (RHYS IFANS) and former programmer turned supervisor Hank Forrester (NICOLAS CAGE), Edward learns of the U.S. government's programs that are searching the online world for info on potential future terrorist attacks. At the same time, he begins dating aspiring photographer Lindsay Mills (SHAILENE WOODLEY) who has no problem not getting to know exactly what he does in his line of work, what with having grown up with such federal workers all around her.

Smart and able to solve problems and do coding quickly, Edward easily earns the support of Corbin and gets assigned to work with the like of CIA Agent Charles (TIMOTHY OLYPHANT) in looking for foreigners with ties to terrorists. He also meets Gabriel Sol (BEN SCHNETZER) who lets Edward view what the government is really capable of doing, such as being privy to everything everyone does online, including U.S. citizens. That doesn't sit well with Edward who eventually resigns from the agency, but he ultimately is back in the game as an NSA contractor working alongside the likes of Patrick Haynes (KEITH STANFIELD) where he realizes things aren't getting any better in terms of invasion of privacy.

Back in the present, as Glenn, Ewen and Laura contemplate just releasing Edward's stolen files themselves rather than waiting for a legitimate news organization to make up its mind about running that story, Edward prepares for the inevitable backlash and likely worse as he blows the whistle on what he thinks is a gross overstepping of boundaries by the U.S. intelligence agencies.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While there are plenty of storyline archetypes found in movies, one of the most commonly used is the "things aren't always what they seem" plot. That sometimes involves new people who come into characters' lives and turn out to be quite different than how they initially present themselves. Flicks like "Fatal Attraction" fall into that category.

Then there are movies where characters, usually as a family unit, move someplace new and what initially seems idyllic -- a new country, neighborhood or house -- turns out to be a nightmare. Most any haunted house movie fits that bill.

And sometimes related to that are new jobs for characters where everything seems great until something is learned, discovered or revealed that pulls back the curtain to show the real situation. One of my favorite examples of that basic plotline is "The Firm," where Tom Cruise plays a law school graduate who's wooed by an old, established firm and moves down south with his wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn) where they eventually discover things aren't hunky dory.

And the more they learn, the more precarious their situation becomes, especially when the firm learns of their new employee's "treachery" and tries to put an end to that. It's a terrific flick (based on the John Grisham novel of the same name), especially in how the protagonist tries to plot his way out of the predicament and the complications that then ensue.

I was hoping for much or at least some of the same in "Snowden," writer/director Oliver Stone's look at the titular controversial figure. If that surname doesn't ring a bell, the film is about Edward Snowden, the former CIA and NSA employee turned whistleblower who fled the U.S. in order to expose the digital eavesdropping the U.S. government was doing on its own citizens in the name of keeping them and the world safe.

Granted, Stone and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald pretty much had to stick to the known facts and couldn't be as creative as storytellers working from purely fictitious scenarios. Even so, I was expecting something a bit more exciting, engaging or even insightful than what's ultimately delivered.

No, it's not horrible or even bad by any means, and it's certainly easy to sit through. But in terms of being a gripping and suspenseful drama -- and an eye-opener for some viewers who didn't follow the true story that closely -- the film is too inert when it should have popped off the screen.

It starts off in 2013 when our title character (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, solid in the part even if the vocal inflections are a bit uneven, no doubt caused by the typical shooting scenes out of order) is in a Hong Kong hotel room about to be interviewed by a reporter (Zachary Quinto) while a documentary filmmaker (Melissa Leo) is present to capture the moment.

They're eventually joined by another reporter (Tom Wilkinson) and Snowden begins to tell his tale, followed by a flashback to earlier years (2004 to start and then back and forth again and again as the nearly 140 minutes play out) when things initially seemed hunky dory (notwithstanding a figurative and literal break from hopes of being a U.S. military serviceman).

He ends up joining the CIA -- under the tutelage of an instructor (Rhys Ifans) and supervisor (Nic Cage) -- and much like Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing did in "The Imitation Game" proves his intellect and problem solving are unparalleled. While also eventually meeting others in his line of work (played by the likes of Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer and Keith Stanfield) he also ends up dating a young woman (Shailene Woodley) who immediately surmises what sort of government agency he's really working for, and accepts that he can't tell her exactly what he does.

During all of that, the story then has Snowden learning just how far his beloved government has gone and continues to go through the digital domain in the name of individual, national and global security. It's certainly compelling, shocking and even maddening, but not terribly surprising subject matter from a real life standpoint. And then there's the underlying question of whether Snowden in real life is a traitor to his country (as he's been charged) or a patriot for exposing the powers that be for overstepping their rights and ignoring privacy concerns.

Not surprisingly (considering his track record), Stone goes for the latter portrayal, and maybe that's why he never offers up a powerful counterpoint moment as occurred with Jack Nicholson's "you can't handle the truth" speech from "A Few Good Men." There are little touches of that here and there, but nothing that stands out in such a memorable fashion.

And that, I fear, is pretty much how the overall offering will play out as time passes by. You might remember having seen it, but beyond addressing some important matters that every citizen should (already) know about, it's not as remarkable a film as it could and should have been. "Snowden" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 12, 2016 / Posted September 16, 2016


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