Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 16, 2016 7:35 pm 
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The man who showed the extent of US global surveillance

Has Stone's Snowden gotten such mixed reviews for political reasons? Or because people have dismissed Stone for doing nothing for a long time as impressive as his earlier films? Or because Laura Poitras already covered this material in Citizenfour, and won the Best Documentary Oscar for it?

Actually, Snowden is an important film and (as has been said) a serious return to form for Oliver Snowden, albeit executed in a lower-keyed, more sober style that never calls attention to itself and, save for the richness of its detail and the excellence of its execution, follows the outlines of any conventional biopic tied in with contemporary news.

Snowden's most tense moments are nothing more dramatic than the interactions of its subject, intelligence cyber operative Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) or his coworkers and contrasting mentors, suave and dandyish leader Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans) and sidelined maverick Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) , or his mere transfer of a raft of secret documents to a little USB drive, or hastily sneaking out of his Hong Kong hotel. In fact Laura Poitras's filming of the Hong Kong hotel room is , here too, for structural purposes, the central locus, though with Poitras, invisible in Citizenfour, actually shown this time (played by Melissa Leo).

All this may seem unpromising. But this is a tense and exciting movie. It spells out much that Poitras' Citizenfour omits, not just about Edward Snowden but about the power structure he became a part of in his young, brilliant career.

Stone, with his cowriter Kieran Fitzgerald, drawing on books by Luke Harding and Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, shows in detail how Snowden came to do what he did, from his departure from the Army Rangers due to broken legs to his CIA and NSA training and service and work in Virginia, Geneva, Tokyo, back to Virginia, and Hawaii, to the hotel room in Hong Kong. This is the portrait of a man that may provide topics for intense debate. (It doesn't tell all, by any means. For example, it says Snowden left high school to earn money to support his parents, but we never see his parents or learn anything about them.)

This is another important film this year (like Zero Days and Lo and Behold) that focuses on the dangers to both the individual and the state of a world dominated by computers and the Internet - where everything is connected and privacy is disappearing. There is debate over whether Snowden is a whistleblower and hero, or a villainous leaker. People differ on whether Stone's film is neutral or hagiography. It is not neutral, but it steers clear of hagiography. Trump, Obama, and Hilary Clinton are united, as the movie gives plenty of clips to show, in regarding Snowden as guilty of crimes and needing to come back from asylum in Russia to "face the music."

Whatever you think about his actions, it's a fact that Edward Snoden was Time Magazine's 2013 "Person of the Year," even though they called him "The Dark Prophet" and said he "pulled off the year's most spectacular heist." The journalists who brought his revelations to the public won awards for their articles doing so. Snowden's revelations have led to changes in NSA policy voted for my Congress and approved by President Obama. Chelsea Manning, who came clean and remained in the US, is serving 35 years in prison. It's also a fact that Obama has ruthlessly tried more whistleblowers under the WWI Espionage Act than any previous president, and Snowden could not have brought the NSA practices to light as he did through channels or as a whistleblower as Hilary Clinton and others have suggested.

As A.O. Scott notes in his review of Snowden for the NYTimes, "What used to be paranoia — the idea, say, that your electronic appliances are spying on you — looks nowadays like blunt realism." That Orwellian futurist possibility is something Werner Herzog looks at in his Low and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.

There are many telling scenes in the film, but perhaps the most telling are those between Snowden and another flashy and in his case pretty young CIA cyber-whiz, Gabriel Sol (Ben Schnetzer), who first shows Ed the extent to which the system they wielded could sneak instantly and without even rubber-stamp legal authorization into people's - anyone's - private lives. He calls the shocked Snowden "Snow White." Snowden is the innocent and pure one, He's a cyber monk: he believes this a sacred calling, and he does not drink or smoke. The toll taken by his stressed-out dedication repeatedly jeopardizes his otherwise solid relationship with serious amateur photographer Lindsay, as well as eventually bringing on epileptic attacks he'd not known he was subject to. While staying close in the absorbing scene-by-scene story to details of what appears to be fact (there is plenty of invention), Stone and company vividly convey the constricting bubble in which Snowden lived, where he was torn between intense patriotism, a conviction that he was uniquely gifted to serve the country's security against massive outside hackers, and his competing sense that it was all going way too far and that he was trapped in practices that violated basic constitutional rights.

The real-life Snowden, who speaks at the end here, and who is living somewhere in Russia with Lindsay, has often been heard from remotely in public forums (as here), and always says he's not a hero or a villain but just an American citizen and that it's the issues that matter and not him. But Stone's movie shows us this everyman, who completed a five-hour CIA test in 38 minutes and threw away an extremely lucrative job to serve principles, is a long way from being ordinary.

Snowden, 134 mins., debuted in Comic-Con in San Diego in July, and 9 Sept. 2016 at Toronto; it opened in the US 16 Sept.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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