One Nation Under Surveillance
Patriotism is a tricky thing. Really, it’s a form of love, a love of country. But what’s the right way to express that love? Well, that’s where it gets tricky.
Do you show your love of country through military or government service? Sure, lots of people do that, and they do it with gallantry and bravery. William Calley loved his country, and chose to serve, but he also killed unarmed Vietnamese civilians during the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. If you love your country, you should respect its laws, right? For the most part, our system of laws are in place for a reason, and when many people have been faced with injustice, they worked within the system to correct it. Martin Luther King Jr. loved his country, or at least what it represented. In 1963, injunctions came down from an Alabama court that King could not lead a demonstration in Birmingham. He willingly broke the law, led the protest, and got tossed in jail for it.
See? It’s all about perspective. While there are plenty of wrong ways to be patriotic, there’s no single right way. In America, especially the America of today, there’s a very rigid strain of patriotism that adheres to a black and white worldview. You serve your country, play by the rules, tell the truth. Edward Snowden did all of those things, and he still ended up living in an undisclosed location somewhere in Russia. Is Snowden a patriot? Oliver Stone sure thinks so, and he’s made Snowden, a very good film about him.
We meet documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), along with journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who wait in the lobby of a gleaming Hong Kong hotel. They’re waiting for Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a squirrelly young man who fidgets with a Rubik’s Cube. He leads them to his room, and demands they put their cell phones in the microwave for security. Snowden is, or I should say, was a contractor for the United States government. Now he’s on the run, and he wants to tell his story.
Stone’s film is wisely structured, and we jump back and forth between his present in that isolated hotel room and his past. The young Snowden started his career in the Army. He desperately wants to join Special Forces, but a serious bone break sidelines that dream. But there are many ways to serve his country, and besides, the kid is scary smart and he’s a rock star with computers. He goes to work as a contractor for America’s intelligence agencies. His mentor, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), tells him that, “The modern battlefield is everywhere.”
Snowden is good at his job, very good. He rises through the ranks, takes postings in Geneva and Japan. He also falls in love with Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) a photographer and politically aware liberal who slowly challenges his beliefs. It seems that he’s living the embodiment of the American Dream. But, as time goes on, Snowden learns how the intelligence services truly operate. He gets a taste of field work with a shady CIA officer (Timothy Olyphant), who has no qualms about strong-arming people for information. Snowden’s world gets murkier as he discovers his own country routinely puts innocent people under digital surveillance and skirts due process.
What’s the right thing to do? He lightly brings up the subject with O’Brien, who assures him it’s all to the good. Should he blow the whistle by going through proper channels? Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), a kindly instructor with the NSA, uncovered shenanigans and did just that. It got him ignored and marginalized with an unimportant position. Snowden’s conscience gnaws at him, and he gradually comes to a decision.
For a while there, from the mid-80’s to most of the 90’s, Oliver Stone was making exciting films. When he’s on point, there aren’t many filmmakers that can do better. He’s a very sharp guy, and he has a gift for tackling complex topics and concisely explaining them without dumbing down the subject matter. JFK, possibly his masterpiece, throws an enormous amount of information at the audience, but all the pieces fit together.* Even his lesser films, like the not very good World Trade Center, and the dumb as toast Savages, are interesting failures. It’s been years since he’s made a good film, but Snowden is a very good film. You can feel Stone’s passion and anger, but this film doesn’t have the frenetic pace or editing of Natural Born Killers. Like its subject, it’s more tightly wound and cerebral, with moments of intense emotion bursting to the surface.
Stone effectively shows us a young and patriotic young man slowly sinking into a moral quagmire, and struggling against it. He lays out the policies of the CIA and NSA, and in a perverse kind of way, it all starts to make sense. Even Lindsay says, after he prompts her to be more careful with her computer, that she has nothing to hide. Maybe not, but everyone deserves privacy, and if we trade it away for security, do we really think we’ll get it back? His script, along with co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald, wrestles with some big ethical questions while simultaneously personalizing them.
Say what you will about Stone, but the guy knows how to direct actors. His casts are usually top notch, and this one is no exception. Watching the fiery Zachary Quinto bouncing off the cooler Melissa Leo is fun. Throwing Tom Wilkinson into the mix as a friendly Scottish journalist is more fun. He even gets a nice performance from professional lunatic Nicolas Cage. Cage has been rotting away making direct-to-video junk for the last several years and, people forget that, despite his penchant for instability, he’s a damn good actor. At times, Shailene Woodley seems a little over her head, and she and Gordon-Levitt don’t have much in the way of chemistry. Stone has never been terribly good at writing roles for women, so I suspect that the problem is more with the script than with her. As O’Brien, Rhys Ifans tiptoes right up to the line of being cartoonishly evil, but the role doesn’t feel terribly well-shaded, and he does what is asked of him.
I would not be at all surprised to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt get an Oscar nomination. Yes, he nails Snowden’s distinctive voice, and yes, it’s highly amusing for the first couple of minutes. But the genius of Gordon-Levitt’s performance is in his body language. These days, tons of movies have scenes where a character stares at a computer and gleans important information from it. But watch how Gordon-Levitt reacts, how he seems to be seeing the information for the first time, processing it, and having an emotional reaction to it. He plays Snowden as a guy who has his emotions on lockdown, but we can see his frustration and moral outrage being challenged by degrees. He does outstanding work.
It’s great to see a good Oliver Stone film again. Snowden is filmmaking that’s smart and sophisticated, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives us a powerful performance of a man who sacrificed his life and his freedom in order to bring attention to a grave injustice. Sounds pretty patriotic to me.
*Here’s the trick with watching Stone’s films. You don’t have to agree with him and, frankly, it doesn’t matter if you do or not. You just have to judge him based on how well he makes his case. I don’t necessarily buy all of the conspiracy stuff in JFK, but Stone’s directorial choices are damn near perfect.