Reel Talk

Snowden: The Biopic That Shouldn’t Have Been a Biopic

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Well, the summer was wound down after a pretty mediocre offering, and it’s now time for studios to start releasing the movies that they hope will get them some Oscar Gold. Which can come in many different forms, but one of the most tried-and-true would probably be the biopic. I’ve talked about some biopics before on the site, and how easy it is to make a mess of a movie that tries to do too much, and ends up saying too little. It’s the most common fault that a biopic can have. The different between a a biopic that works and one that doesn’t can often be so small, and yet it can make or break a film. And yet, I don’t think I’ve before seen a biopic quite like Oliver Stone’s new feature, Snowden. Based on the infamous whistle-blower Edward Snowden who leaked massive amounts of evidence that the US government was illegally spying and obtaining data on it’s  own citizens, Snowden attempts to tell his story to the common-person who has no idea what he really did, or if he’s a traitor or a patriot. And in doing so, it completely misses the point.

The film follows the life of Edward Snowden, from his humble beginnings training in the Army to his eventual exile, all while framed around the making of the famous documentary Citizenfour. Now, I did not see that coming, but a substantial amount of the film has Snowden meeting with the filmmaker who created Citizenfour and the journalists who helped him leak all the information he found. And in between scenes showing the making of that documentary we get to learn all about Edward Snowden’s apparently hackneyed life. We see him get injured in the Army, and being sent to work on counter-intelligence in the CIA, where we get just about every trope from biopics about smart people thrown at us. We see him solving puzzles, knowing all sorts of random facts and details, and of course finishing a test that’s supposed to take him four hours in forty minutes. Just like a thousand other films about intelligent people. Anyway, Snowden begins his career working in different intelligence agencies, gradually getting a better and better understanding of the tools that the government is using to spy on people, both abroad and at home, that seem to break all kinds of laws. He’s constantly shown to be wary of the legal ramifications of these programs and their secret court-orders, but then just keeps working on them, giving the government more and more tools to spy on its citizens.

But between all of the espionage and moral ambiguity we also get to learn all about Snowden’s relationship drama, trying to keep all of his secret jobs separate from his love life, and his ongoing fight with epilepsy. But none of that seems really important to the story, and I guess is just there to humanize the man, and pad out the two and half hour run-time. Anyway, We continue to see Snowden see horrible thing, act aghast, and continue to work on them, until it turns out that some shadowy CIA head that he’s friends with named O’Brian (seriously, the shadowy Big Brother figure is named O’Brian in this movie) has been spying on him and his girlfriend. So with that line crossed, Snowden decides to steal a massive amount of data on what the NSA and CIA are doing, and how they’re doing it, and flees the country to Hong Kong. While there he contacts the journalists and filmmaker, makes the far superior Citizenfour, and releases the information to the public, where he’s quickly branded a traitor, and gets trapped in Russia as an exile.

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So yeah, it’s a pretty boilerplate biopic. We see all about Snowden’s life, go through a series of tropes that are familiar to the genre, and I suppose learn something about the man, and what he did. The film obviously thinks that Snowden is a hero, and that his whistle-blowing was an important and brave thing to do, which I do generally agree with. Maybe not to the extent that Oliver Stone wants to deify him, but I’m not one of the people who consider him a traitor or anything. But, at the end of the day, the movie is just dull. Which is a real danger when dealing with something as technical and esoteric as this story. What Snowden uncovered isn’t easily explained to the average person, which is the problem that a lot of journalists encountered when the story first broke. It’s very technical, and takes a lot of explaining to get. Which is why I think Citizenfour worked. It was mostly about what it was Snowden uncovered, and the ramifications of that information, and less about how he did it, and who he was. I heartily recommend that documentary if you’re interested in this story, making it the second film that’s featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt staring as a real person with a weird accent that’s film is far inferior to the documentary that it’s based on. Not a great track record there.

But the biggest problem I had with this documentary is the idea that it completely missed the point of this story. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m an expert on Snowden or what he did. That’s obviously not true. But after watching Citizenfour and a handful of other interviews that the man has done, one thing becomes incredibly clear. He didn’t want this story to be about him. He knew that the dialogue of this story was going to transition to “who is Edward Snowden?” and not “holy crap, look what the government is doing,” and he did everything he could to keep it from happening like that. Because his life isn’t that important. It’s what he found. I have no problem with what Edward Snowden did. I truly believe that if you see an injustice, you should speak up. The problem I have is how he did it. He just dumped all of this obtuse information on the public, without explain what the hell it all meant. You needed someone to explain what this all proved, and we didn’t really get that. We got journalists who were too confused by all the technical jargon, so instead turned the story around and focused it on Snowden himself. Which isn’t what he wanted. He wanted the information out. He doesn’t matter. And yet, we got a biopic about the man that’s mostly about him, and barely about what he found. I don’t even think the movie did a good job at explaining what it was he uncovered, and what it really means. There are some monologues with insane visual interpretations of how the internet works, but the movie is so obviously more interested in telling Edward Snowden’s life. Which is the completely wrong approach in my opinion. Especially when they just turn his life into such a hackneyed “genius” biopic. No offense to Edward Snowden, but I don’t care about his love life. The man wasn’t that interesting, what he found was. So they had to bend over backwards to make a narrative out of the man’s life, when all they needed to do was explain what it was he found, which they did poorly. So see Citzenfour or interviews with Snowden about what he uncovered. It’s far more interesting and engaging, and you’ll actually learn something.

Snowden was written by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone, directed by Oliver Stone, and released by Open Road Films, 2016.

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