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Saturday , September 21 2019

‘Snowden’ freezes audiences at TIFF – Stone’s most galvanizing political drama in years

Shailene Woodley poses for photos at the premiere for ‘Snowden’ at the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Canada, Sept 9. (AFP)
Shailene Woodley poses for photos at the premiere for ‘Snowden’ at the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Canada, Sept 9. (AFP)

LOS ANGELES, Sept 10, (RTRS): Measured by the usually warm standards of the Toronto Film Festival’s audience response meter, the world premiere of Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” received an apparently cool reception. But, as with espionage, there was almost certainly more going on under the surface than appeared at first sight.

The film received repeated smatterings of polite applause at the packed Roy Thomson Hall as the end credits rolled shortly after midnight. Stone and members of the production crew took a single bow from a spotlighted mezzanine-level box.

It seems very possible that the audience was chilled by what they had just witnessed, rather than cold towards the movie.

Overheard corridor talk was very much about the plight of NSA operative turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, who now lives in an unwanted exile in Moscow. Other debriefing chatter took the “I remember when” personal form with folks exchanging uncomfortable memories of when they were first made to take notice of the global snooping threat that Snowden and “Snowden” deftly uncover.

The two-hour film delivers a strong cocktail of excitement, technical detail, and personal insight, as it mixes up archival news footage with reconstructions.

The testy act of downloading the illegally gathered intelligence to a trio of investigative journalists has already been seen on the big screen in Laura Poitras’ equally scary 2014 documentary “Citizenfour.” Stone carefully replicates Snowden’s whistleblowing days holed up in a cramped Hong Kong hotel.

The largest portions of the film, however, are related to Snowden’s backstory as it relates to his recruitment by the CIA, his training, and geeky brilliance in devising spy software programs which he naively thought might be put to a simple defined purpose. And also to Snowden’s bumpy love life with his far more outgoing girlfriend Lindsay, who manages to combine photography with exotic dancing as her chosen career paths, and happily leaks her life onto social media.


Together, the twin tracks demonstrate Snowden’s growing unease with the ‘intelligence community,’ his gnawing belief that politicians were lying to the American public, and build-up to the moment that he became the worm that turned.

Another indication that the Toronto audience was watching attentively, rather than frozen rigid, came moments before the end when, there was spontaneous applause for a neat piece of film-making craft. In a smooth reveal, Stone swaps out actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt replacing him with footage of the real Edward Snowden, letting the conscientious objector speak for himself, if only for a few lines.

Let’s be honest: Oliver Stone hasn’t made an Oliver Stone movie that mattered in more than 20 years. The firebrand urgency that once defined his name — the way he directed films that seized the zeitgeist, that drove the conversation, that inspired controversy because of how they leapt into the drama of history — has, for too long, been trapped in the past. Which is not to say that Stone hasn’t tried. He has made films that bent over backwards to be topical, like the earnest and sentimental 9/11 requiem “World Trade Center,” or the goofy provocative political cartoon “W.,” or the cautionary-but-behind-the-curve financial thriller “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” One or two of these movies “found an audience,” but none found a purpose; even when they managed to connect at the box office, they disappeared from the public consciousness like puffs of smoke.

But Stone’s exile in the desert of overheated irrelevance has now ended. “Snowden” isn’t just the director’s most exciting work since “Nixon” (1995) — it’s the most important and galvanizing political drama by an American filmmaker in years. Telling the story of Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who became a whistleblower and fugitive by leaking documents that revealed the vast, spidery, paradigm-shifting scope of the new American surveillance state, Stone has made a movie that asks the audience to look, almost convulsively, at what this issue really means, and at who Edward Snowden really is.

You might think you already know. Maybe you decided, a while back, that Snowden is a “traitor,” or that he went too far in leaking documents and revealing NSA secrets. Or maybe you saw “Citizenfour,” the 2014 Laura Poitras documentary that presented the interview Snowden gave just as he was going rogue, and you decided he’s one of the heroes of our time.


But whether you’re pro-Snowden, anti-Snowden, or somewhere in between, Stone’s movie is sure to deepen your response to his actions, and to the whole evolution of the American intelligence community in the age of meta-technology. “Snowden” isn’t leftist-conspiratorial propaganda (though some may accuse it of being that). It’s a riveting procedural docudrama that takes a deep dive into what surveillance has become. In doing so, it’s a movie that — no small thing — makes Oliver Stone matter again.

It helps that Snowden, played with crisp magnetism by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is the furthest thing from a crusader, or even a liberal. He’s a straitlaced, mild-mannered conservative brainiac who loves his country so much that he wants to devote his life to defending it. When we meet him, in 2004, he’s in basic training in the United States Army Reserve (it’s 9/11 that inspires him to join up), but he’s not really the athletic military type — he goes through the grueling exercises wearing clunky tortoise-shell glasses — and when he leaps off a bunk and breaks his leg, it’s because the pounding training has already slowly shattered his delicate bones. His career as a combat warrior is over before it begins. So he goes for the next best thing: a slot in the CIA, where the fight for US security is already playing out on the battleground of the future — namely, cyberspace.

Snowden, terse and owlishly square, now with rectangle frames that make him look a little hipper, is attracted to the Agency the way that so many of its members have been, out of a combination of duty and a desire for excitement. During his interview with Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who will become his mentor, he answers a question by admitting that he thinks it would be “cool” to have top-level security clearance — which turns out to be the wrong thing to say. For all his eagerness, and despite his clean resume, he’s told that in another era, he probably wouldn’t make the cut. But before he is anything else, Edward is a dazzlingly gifted computer scientist: a prodigy, a geek, a hacker. That gives him the ideal equipment to be a soldier in the next war. In the old days (i.e., the ’70s), a CIA analyst was a desk jockey, standing behind the field agents, but in “Snowden” cyberspace is the field. Corbin tells Edward that 20 years from now, “Iraq will be a hellhole no one cares about,” and that the whole war on terror is a sideshow.

The real conflict, he says, will be with China and Russia, fought with rogue computer worms and malware. “Snowden” is the ultimate true-life hacker thriller.

The movie doesn’t have the kaleidoscopic dazzle of Stone’s great ‘90s films (“JFK,” “Natural Born Killers”), but it has his heady propulsive fever. It’s framed by the “Citizenfour” interview, which Stone re-stages as a piece of verite suspense, set in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, with Edward gliding through the lobby like an egghead Jason Bourne, fiddling with his telltale Rubik’s Cube. Melissa Leo plays Poitras as tough, rumpled, and maternal, and Zachary Quinto, all driven neurotic fire (even his flat hair is intense), is Glenn Greenwald, the fiercely independent journalist who interviewed Snowden for Poitras’ camera. You get the feeling, more than you did watching “Citizenfour,” that there was an honest terror beneath the proceedings — that given the subject of surveillance, the CIA might have burst in at any moment. But it’s not just about their safety. The stakes are so high because the theme of the interview, and the issue of whether they can publish it in the London-based newspaper The Guardian, is momentous. This is their one and only chance to expose the truth before Snowden disappears.

When Stone was casting an actor to play former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden in a film, he said he went to only one person — Gordon-Levitt.

“I don’t know why, he just looked like, and felt like, and acted like he was one of that generation, very much the same age and computer knowledgeable,” Stone told Reuters last month in Los Angeles.

“Snowden,” which had its world premiere on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival and hits theaters on September 16, sees Gordon-Levitt, 35, play the 33-year-old Snowden through a decade of his life.

Gordon-Levitt, who achieved fame as a child actor in television series “3rd Rock from the Sun,” said that by playing Snowden, he hoped to understand his motivations.

“I was kind of trying to figure out why he did what he did, what was going on in his head,” he said. “And one of the questions everyone asks is, ‘Why didn’t he just, you know, voice his concerns through proper channels?’”

The film leads up to the events of 2013, when Snowden fled the United States after exposing the government’s mass surveillance programs to journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.

The US government filed espionage charges against Snowden and he was granted asylum in Russia, where he has lived since, with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Actress Shailene Woodley plays Mills in the film.

Gordon-Levitt said he related to Snowden’s disillusionment with the US government after watching US National Intelligence director James Clapper deny, before a congressional committee, that the NSA was collecting records on millions of Americans.

“If the director of National Intelligence is being asked by a senator under oath, ‘Hey, is this happening?’ and he’s telling a lie, well, then, what is some guy that works at the NSA going to accomplish by complaining through proper channels?” the actor said.

Tech-savvy Gordon-Levitt, who said he donated his fee for the film to the American Civil Liberties Union, is the founder of HitRecord, an online collaborative creative hub to brings together artists from around the world.

He said he tended to be optimistic about new technology but the movie made him more aware of its negative aspects.

“It’s worth being optimistic about all those things, but it’s also probably worth paying attention and considering what might the downsides be of this new technology that we’re inheriting,” he said.

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