More noise than signal


Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Oliver Stone has never met a conspiracy he didn’t like, so it was only a matter of time before he covered an actual real one, rather than dangerous, misguided garbage such as the JFK assassination. We all know who did that, a time-travelling Harambe in collusion with the reverse vampires and the Mulligan Foundation. Here he turns to the accounts of Western government omnisnooping released a few years back, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden, omnisnoop enabler turned omniwhistleblower.

This films shows how Snowden entered the U.S.A’s spy business, in a variety of roles, during which he starts questioning the reach of the programs he’s enacting, seemingly moving from a conservative to liberal viewpoint along the way, a struggle which also takes its toll on girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). This leads up to his pilfering of national secrets and leaking them to the media, represented by Zachary Quinto’s Glenn Greenwald, Tom Wilkinson’s Ewen MacAskill, and Melissa Leo’s Laura Poitras, and Snowden’s subsequent flight from a US arrest and extradition warrants, leading to him holing up in Russia.

At the risk of minimising the two and a quarter hours this runs to, that’s pretty much it, and I do find it hard to believe that you’ve not already got the gist of what happens during the theoretically dramatic flight to freedom in Russia, that noted beacon of free speech and limiting government over-reach. It was, after all, reasonably big news not all that long ago.

Also, if you’ve a brain in your head, and as you’re listening to the Internet’s Most Intelligent Podcast I think that’s a safe assumption, you’ll already be aware of the horrors of universal surveillance that Snowden confirms are running in the world, and the lack of oversight, and all that jazz.

What you may not be familiar with is Snowden’s character, which I was rather hoping would be more vigorously examined in the film. It’s mostly about his intellectual conflict between his belief in the liberties supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution and the ways they are circumvented, and very little is revealed about how Snowden came to change his mind.

For example, it seems pretty clear as soon as Snowden first enters the service that these abuses are going on, and he actively helps make them worse for the majority of the film, but that’s not questioned, analysed or mentioned at all. Even as someone who feels Snowden’s on the right side of the debate on whether he’s a hero or a traitor, which is also barely mentioned, it’s tough not to see this as more of a hagiography rather than any serious attempt to capture Snowden’s character.

There’s other issues with the film – Shailene Woodley appears to have been written in purely to whine in a roundly underwritten role, and crucially it’s just too damn long, and my attention had roundly wandered by the end of this despite my usual regard for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

To be fair, none of the problems are the cast’s fault, with everyone mentioned aquitting themselves well, along with the supporting roles from the likes of Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage, and they all cover some very dry subject matter as well as they can.

I’d be a great deal more positive about this film if you chopped half an hour out of it, which seems quite possible without significantly altering anything, and I wonder if the material would be better in less credulous hands than Stone’s. It’s fine, and probably earns a recommendation just from the civics standpoint, but I’d hoped for more.