Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) are journalists who have arrived in Hong Kong to meet with an extremely secretive person who is promising he has a major story for them to break. They are both making a documentary and hoping to have the results published in The Guardian newspaper, so if this man is correct, they will be blowing the lid off one of the widest-ranging conspiracies of recent times, one that takes in the entire planet, everywhere with an internet or mobile phone connection, any kind of communication device that is part of a network, really. The man is Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and he has stolen incredible secrets from his bosses in the United States intelligence services...
There was already a movie about Snowden, and Laura Poitras had indeed made it: Citizenfour, an information-packed but rather dry effort that condensed all of the whistleblower's revelations into one easy to digest package. Director Oliver Stone presumably saw that and thought this tale needed to be brought to a wider audience, with film stars playing key roles to make it a more attractive proposition at your average multiplex, therefore he took a few sources and fashioned this production out of them, also meeting with Snowden in his new home of Moscow to make up his mind on whether this was worth doing. Unfortunately for Stone, once it was released hardly anyone wanted to see it.
It didn't seem to matter that this was a rare film that featured a topic that influenced billions across the world, exposing their total lack of privacy to them in the least complicated manner possible with facts clearly laid out and the main points unmissable, most people simply did not care they were being spied on. One assumes they thought that happened anyway, and that the authorities were conducting this activity for legitimate security reasons, but the Snowden of this tells us terrorism, potential lawbreaking, was merely an excuse to control the masses by examining which way they were bending in the wind of opinion and using the information of what they were discussing all the better to keep them under the thumb of a small number of very rich folks.
There was an issue there, however, and it was a problem both with this and Citizenfour: the actual specifics of how this affected the viewer personally were nebulous, and without solid examples of what was at stake, or what the individual threat was, most audiences would be all at sea if asked what was going to happen to them and those they knew because of this vast spy project. Stone did have Gordon-Levitt narrate a few montages where graphics were utilised to make the points more apparent, but these documentary techniques did not have much effect when he was forced to fill in gaps in the Snowden narrative with movie movie displays of tension and suspense: there were still some things his subject was cagey about, and for instance the method invented to depict him slipping the top secret stuff out of the base of operations was pure fantasy.
And it looked it, which did not help. The leading man was effective enough, and if you had seen the real Snowden interviewed it came across as a perfectly fair impersonation, yet the impression was more that he was a mere channel through which the would-be sensational revelations would be delivered, rather than a three-dimensional human being (to be fair, also a drawback with Poitras' documentary). There was also a sense of spotting the stars as there had been in Stone's most celebrated work of conspiracy, JFK, though in this there was more concrete evidence of the tendrils of the security culture worming their way into everyone's lives, no matter if they believed themselves to be the watcher or the watched: when it boiled down, everyone was being watched to some degree or another, as if we were all suspected of guilt of something we had already done or something we could do in the future. But the paranoid atmosphere Snowden depicted had been so pervasive, in reality or fiction, Stone was either preaching to the choir with admitted skill, or ignored by the majority who shrugged and carried on as before. Music by Craig Armstrong.
[The sole extra on Sony's Blu-ray is a trailer, though there are subtitles, and the quality of sound and image is as good as you would expect.]
Didactic, aggressive and in-your-face American writer-director who, after directing a couple of horrors (Seizure and The Hand) and writing Midnight Express and Scarface, settled into his own brand of political state-of-the-nation films like Salvador, the Oscar-winning Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. Slightly out of character were The Doors and U-Turn: respectively, a celebration of the late sixties and a sweaty thriller. In 2004 he experienced his biggest flop with Alexander, a historical epic, but followed it with the reverent World Trade Center and a biopic of then just-leaving President George W. Bush. A belated sequel to Wall Street and gangster movie Savages were next. Say what you like, he has made his mark and loads of people have an opinion on him.