DVD Review - Snowden

At the 87th Academy Awards, Citizenfour won for Best Documentary Feature. It was about how Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and government contractor who was a skilled, computer-expert, stole classified information from the NSA. Snowden exposed how the government was spying on American citizens or American allies abroad. Snowden had specifically contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald to tell his story and report on the classified info. This film, directed and co-written by Oliver Stone, recreates the events of that documentary, which took place in Snowden's hotel room in Hong Kong, and it also adapts the books of several people, including Anatoly Kucherena, the Russian lawyer of Snowden.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper and 50/50) stars as Edward Snowden, another character whom is well-known due to a popular documentary and whom has an accent that is quite distinct. Gordon-Levitt did a character like that in Robert Zemeckis' The Walk. Like before, he nails the voice and the mannerisms. While everything superficially works as in the Zemeckis film, deeper nuances are a bit lacking, although Gordon-Levitt does a better job here than in the Zemeckis film, mainly because he's not so big in his personality.

Shailene Woodley (Divergent and The Descendants) co-stars as Lindsay Mills, a photographer from Columbia, Maryland whom Edward meets online. She's a liberal and he's a conservative. Her love and her influence help to dissuade him from his loyalty and fidelity to the federal government. Yet, on her own, she's smart and fun.

Watching the evolution of Edward and Lindsay's relationship is the most compelling thing. Edward gets increasingly paranoid and frustrated, and the stuff on the CIA and NSA is interesting and at times can be thrilling. Even some of Edward's personal problems like his epilepsy are curious to watch. Yet, I'm not sure if the movie underlines what the big deal is about what Edward ultimately discovers.

Yes, the government is spying on everyone electronically, even on its own citizens, but the movie never explores the warrantless wiretapping issue that began in 2001 after 9/11. The Bush administration was criticized for its surveillance of Americans under the banner of the war on terror. Some argued the NSA violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The movie name-checks the FISA court, which is supposed to justify surveillance on certain people if not mass surveillance in general, but the movie never dives into it.

The movie perhaps concerns itself with the what and the how of spying. Yet, it never goes into much more context and fleshes out the debate. For example, post 9/11 isn't the first time that the government has spied on its own citizens. The Kennedy administration, led by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, spied on Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the 1960's. In 2006, while Edward was supposedly still in training, the ACLU had brought a lawsuit against the NSA about its mass surveillance, so it's not as if people didn't know what the NSA was doing. Therefore, the goal of Edward stealing information from the NSA was to prove something that was already known.

There is a sequence within the movie involving a CIA agent, played by Timothy Olyphant (Justified and Deadwood). Edward goes to Geneva and sees how this CIA agent uses information from spying in very shady ways against a Middle Eastern banker. Somehow, the movie should have done a similar sequence for someone in America. The whole thing otherwise feels disconnected from Americans, as if it wouldn't be used against us. The pervasiveness of Facebook and other social media where people have given up so much privacy anyway is also briefly addressed but the significance of that on Americans is never felt.


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