Directed by Olive Stone.
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Tom Wilkinson and Nicolas Cage. 134 mins.
Do you remember that time when people were discussing the idea of an End of History? When there wasn't a political spectrum, just a big twister game over the centre ground. In this century though we have seen History make a comeback, a very considerable comeback. Now we have an excess of History, and Oliver Stone has responded to this change. It used to be, back in the 90s, that Stone would make great big, restless, gimmicky, pyrotechnic extravaganzas like JFK, NBK, to capture the nation's political situation. Nowadays he just putters along making straightforward unadorned dramas, and lets reality provide the mayhem and spectacle.
Olive Stone's biopic of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is a provocative and confusing film to see bleary eyed, as I did, less than five hours after Trump had been confirmed as the next president. Watching it I wondered where Snowden fits in our new reality. As a little man who stood up to the political elite – and whose exposures did untold damage to the reputation of the Democratic party – does he represent a part of the grassroots anti-establishment movement? But then why is his film being made by a collection of partyline Hollywood liberals?
The film is a recreation of the days when the story broke, with him holed up in a Hong Kong hotel with a film maker (Leo as the maker of CitizenFour) and some Guardian journalists, intercut with a look back over his life in his twenties, starting with his failed attempt to make it as a special forces soldier. From there we see him progress rapidly through the intelligence community, thanks to his skill with computers, and then slowly becoming disillusioned with the liberties being taken by the US government's extensive use of phone and email surveillance. The film's view is unreservedly to present him as a patriot, with a strong desire to serve his country.
It is a good telling of a compelling story with two excellent performances: JG-L gets Snowden's voice and mannerism down perfectly, while Ifans is remarkably convincing as his CIA mentor. Given their attention to detail, you'd think someone would get Woodley, who plays his girlfriend, to make a bit of an effort. She plays her like it is a standard girlfriend role, with the standard Woodley performance, looking and sounding just exactly like she does in every other film.
Snowden is the embodiment of the modern film hero, a computer nerd with a passion for number puzzles. Who'd have though Matthew Broderick in War Games, would be such a template for 21st century screen protagonists? How much that protagonist is a hero or not is another matter. Presuming he wasn't a Russian sleeper agent all along, the collective reaction to his revelations was largely indifference – people are too hung on connectivity and (mis)information to care too much about the downside. Like the teacher warning about the dangers of heroin, his message was willfully blocked out.
At the end there is a line about how the real fear is that this surveillance apparatus will one day be in the hands of a tyrant, which drew a fatalistic little snort from every viewer in the room. Three years ago I reviewed The Fifth Estate, another film about a heroic hacker, Julian Assange, and heroic Guardian journalists, who stood up against big government. The same hero is now sitting in the Venezuelan embassy having played an essential role in getting Trump elected with the drip drip of Russian hacked e-mails from Hilary.