WEIRDLAND: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley in Oliver Stone's cyberspace thriller "Snowden"

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley in Oliver Stone's cyberspace thriller "Snowden"

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. It helps that Snowden, played with crisp magnetism by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is the furthest thing from a crusader. When we meet him, in 2004, he’s in basic training in the United States Army Reserve, but he’s not really the athletic military type. So he goes for the next best thing: a slot in the CIA, where the fight for U.S. security is already playing out on the battleground of the future — namely, cyberspace.

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. 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.

Gordon-Levitt does a meticulous impersonation of the Snowden manner: clipped and impeccable, his articulate, logical voice always trying to touch the reality of whatever he’s talking about. He’s certainly a geek, but with an important qualifier: He’s cool as a cucumber — free of any visible anxiety (or anger). At times, he’s like a very friendly automaton, but it’s not like he doesn’t have passion; as we’ll see, it just takes a lot to get him riled.

He also thinks he’s got everything figured out. On a dating site called Geek-Mate, Edward meets Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a local girl who’s sweet-natured and hot-tempered at the same time. They connect from their first date, but they’ve got major differences. Lindsay, a little aimless but shrewd and informed, thinks the Iraq War is a corrupt disaster, whereas Edward believes he grasps the bigger picture: the defense of the United States, and the things that go into that, which liberals shield themselves from knowing (even though they want the benefits of protection, too). 

Edward and Lindsay’s political differences have a touch of screwball-comedy friction. When she figures out that he’s working for the Agency after having traced where his message came from, he says, “You know how to run an IP trace?” For him, that’s practically a love lyric. Woodley gives a performance of breathtaking dimension: As the movie goes on, she makes Lindsay supportive and selfish, loving and stricken. Edward is assigned to the National Security Agency, the division of U.S. intelligence devoted, essentially, to data-gathering. He’s dispatched to different locales (Geneva, Tokyo, Hawaii), and Lindsay goes to live with him in each one. 

At home, Edward puts a piece of tape over his webcam, because he realizes that someone could be looking at him (or Lindsay). He’s not paranoid; he’s just enlightened. He knows there’s something wrong with that; it’s spying evolving into Big Brother. Stone stages a fantastic scene in which Edward talks to Corbin, his boss and mentor, on a giant screen, and Rhys Ifans’ face looms up like some CIA version of the Wizard of Oz. He’s terrifying, especially when he reveals that he heard that conversation between Edward and his colleagues. He knows whether or not Lindsay is having an affair; he knows everything. By the time Edward decides to act, it’s because he can’t not act. Stone creates a powerful wake-up call. The real message of “Snowden” is that surveillance is a Pandora’s Box. You may leave the movie grateful for everything that Edward Snowden brought to light, but also wondering if that box can ever be closed. Source: variety.com

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