More Than Just Cinematography-Deep: Our Review of 2016’s Snowden (Spoilers Ahead)

There’s a moment in director Oliver Stone’s 2016 feature film, Snowden, when – eschewing any immediate reference to either of its source books or even Laura Poitras’ similarly-focused documentary, Citizenfour – Joseph Gordon Levitt’s titular, yet then unrealised, whistleblower guardedly argues with his Rhys Ifans-depicted CIA mentor about the public good of their mass surveillance. In the forest.

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Prelude to a scene: (from left to right) Rhys Ifans and Joseph Gordon-Levitt seen in a promotional still for 2016’s Snowden (SF.se Photo and Caption)

There was that, in the vein of 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, among other callbacks to prior Oliver Stone films that shone through 2016’s Snowden. 

In the spirit of our newly-rechristened site, let’s get deeper into those, given Snowden‘s over three-year-old revelations.

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Writer/director Oliver Stone attends the Snowden panel at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con International in the San Diego Convention Centre on 21 July, 2016 in San Diego, California (Kevin Winter/Getty Images Photo and Caption via TheHollywoodReporter.com)

Before anything else, please note that my prior experience with director Stone’s filmography – 1987 and 2010’s Wall Street films, 1991’s JFK, 1995’s Nixon and 2008’s W. – is woefully limited but, the prospect of Stone week notwithstanding, let’s establish some of his best-known trademarks cutting through the above and 2016’s Snowden:

  1. Bitter or unpleasant struggles for prosperity: in 2016’s Snowden, the titular CIA, later NSA, officer has to struggle with the mass civilian data collection (and his CIA trainer) whilst moving from one post up to the next or one employer to the next; both Wall Street films – and in an antithetical way, JFK, given its protagonist’s unwillingness to bend at all – echo this, as backed up by Rolling Stone’s Joe Gross.
  2. Hyperreal or montage-esque editing: previously As discussed by Dr Randy Laist of Goodwin College vis-à-vis 1994’s Natural Born Killers, director Stone’s films use quick montages of archival footage to equally overwhelm, provide multiple angles and suggest the fractured nature of perspective and observation; 2016’s Snowden uses this to display data on furniture glass and thoughts in physical silhouette.
  3. Use of multiple shooting styles, film stock and music: in 2016’s Snowden this is in the shift of music from militaristic orchestral pieces to pulsating electronics and action-oriented bombast and the variation in film grain from film stock (possibly marked by the grid-lined cinematography in the opening Hong Kong scenes) at the start to digital and documentary styles over the rest of the film; 1991’s JFK and 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps had similar variations.
  4. Depicting unpleasant and topical periods of 20th-century history: in addition to 2016’s Snowden dealing with the mass collection of civilian data by the NSA and CIA, director Stone’s filmography also shows, albeit with dramatic licence, the aftermath of the late President Kennedy’s assassination (1991’s JFK), the run-up to and aftermath of the Watergate break-ins (1995’s Nixon), the effects of the Vietnam War on its soldiers (1989’s Born on the Fourth of July) and the immediate response to the 9/11 attacks (2006’s World Trade Center).

Here’s to spotting more Stone-isms in the future.

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(from left to right) Director/co-screenwriter Oliver Stone, Edward Snowden, Time of the Octopus author Anatoly Kucherena and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald in Kucherena’s home (Weidu8.net Photo)

The script, courtesy of director Oliver Stone and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald, gradually sets into the main plot of Snowden’s troubles with civilian data collection and how he goes about doing something about it. With that resolved, the more Citizenfour-esque Hong Kong hotel room segments are fairly quick. The Wall Street-esque mentor-mentee subplot works and feeds into and from the main plot and first, subjectively seen, first act.

There’s also a metaphor involving the trailer-featured Rubik’s Cube and how its journey, much like that of the NSA files, moves from person to person.

In context of Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, there are some definite overlaps in terms of mannerisms – the red-blanket-covered-password-entry, wariness of cellphone ‘hot-mike-ing‘ and Snowden’s movements in Hong Kong before moving to Moscow – but any overlap is compressed within the hotel room scenes.

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(from left to right) Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Shailene Woodley and Joseph Gordon-Levitt seen at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival premiere of 2016’s Snowden (Snowden Movie on Twitter Photo and Caption)

The core acting pair, both for screentime and for changes seen, is that of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Edward Snowden and Shailene Woodley’s Lindsay Mills; due to how the latter changes from a carefree friend with aversion for Snowden’s work to someone who moves to Moscow to be with him. Rhys Ifans’ alluded to Wall Street-esque relationship comes just behind in terms of screentime shared and with little change seen in Ifans’ Corbin O’Brian as such.

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Co-composer Craig Armstrong (RoyalAlbertHall.com Photo)

The score, by composers Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters, is, in tune with director Stone’s style, varied from scene to scene: while it starts with orchestral music set to Special Forces training in the forest, it cuts to electronic music when Snowden’s computer-centric career begins in earnest and swaps out for near-Jason Bourne-y thriller music as the film’s plot kicks in. There’s also The Veil by Peter Gabriel that plays over the  suitably montage-esque end credits. That being said…

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(from left to right) Director Ron Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle behind the scenes of 2013’s Rush (Collider.com Photo and Caption)

The cinematography feels distinctly film stock-y at the start (with yellow grids crisscrossing the screen), more documentary-esque in Hong Kong (post-hotel room introduction) with close shots and a feeling of proximity to Snowden’s being and face, and smooth and glossy during the CIA and NSA indoor scenes. Barring the presence of over-the-shoulder photography, there are several reflective surface shots (including eyeglasses and mirrors), corridor-framed photography (with the subject lying just under centre) and slow-motion for seizure scenes.

Notwithstanding the use of the same reflective surfaces to convey information (à la the ‘same old, brand new‘ tag towards the film’s end) there are many metaphorical, if on the more explicit side, allusions to surveillance with the aforementioned mirrors, eye-like arrangements and a blown-up Rhys Ifans who moves towards the camera and occupies the entire frame, just with his head, in a Big Brother-esque nod.

With more simplicity than Snowden warrants, Snowden is a sleek-looking and chameleonically-sounding film that feels, in retrospect and research, like an Oliver Stone film. Topical cinemagoers, and Stone fans alike, will find it cinematic and eye-opening (pardon the pun).

(Whilst the aforementioned opinions and observations are the author’s own unless otherwise stated, the following sources were used to secure facts: 22NovemberNetwork.Wordpress.com, AVClub.com, DailyMail.co.uk, EW.com, FilmMakers.com, IMDb.com, Indiewire.com, NYTimes.com, OliverStone.com, PBS.org, RogerEbert.com, RollingStone.com, TFT.UCLA.edu, UniVie.ac.at, Wired.com,  YouTube.com)

Plot and Act-by-Act Breakdown:

Plot: Intelligence officer, later contractor, Edward Snowden attempts to deal with the NSA and CIA’s worldwide mass surveillance.

Prologue: Edward Snowden receives Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong; he agrees to be photographed and (formally) introduces himself.

Act 1: Snowden breaks his legs while training for the Special Forces; he decides to apply to the CIA.

Act 2: Snowden passes the training test; Snowden later goes to meet Lindsay in a Washington D.C. café.

Act 3: Snowden speaks to Corbin and insists on being sent to Geneva; in a subplot, future Snowden receives Ewen MacAskill in Hong Kong.

Act 4: Snowden manages to get a Pakistani banker to work for the CIA; Snowden later decides to resign over the agency’s coercion of said banker.

Act 5: Snowden decides to go to Japan to work for the NSA presence there; Lindsay returns to the United States soon after.

Act 6: Snowden chooses to return to Maryland to be with Lindsay; Snowden decides to work for the CIA as a private contractor whilst there.

Act 7: Snowden suffers a seizure; he and Lindsay later decide to move to Hawaii following an NSA job offer there.

Act 8: Snowden chooses to confess his unauthorised use of NSA software to Corbin; Snowden later asks Lindsay to return to Maryland while Snowden leaves on a business trip.

Act 9: Snowden chooses to copy out NSA files and leaves the facility; he later decides to contact Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald to meet him in Hong Kong.

Act 10: Snowden decides to reveal himself as the whistleblower post-publication; he later decides to escape with Robert Tibbo to the Hong Kong slums.

Act 11: Snowden later decides to flee Hong Kong but is grounded in Russia after his passport is revoked.

Epilogue: Snowden gives an interview via video link to Alan Rusbridger, the former Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian.

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