Snowden Review: Story half told


Director: Oliver Stone

Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone (screenplay), Luke Harding (book), Anatoly Kucherena (book)

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto

snowden-movie-poster


Release date: September 22nd, 2016

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA, Germany

Running time: 134 minutes


3/5

Best part: Levitt and Woodley’s chemistry.

Worst part: The sluggish pace.

There are many words to describe whistleblower Edward Snowden. Descriptors like patriot, terrorist, rebel, whistleblower and tyrant have been used by all manner of people. In spite of finger pointing and name calling, there is no doubt this is a fascinating tale. 2014’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour exposed the truth behind one of the 21st Century’s most alarming leaks of classified information.

As Citizenfour proved, the fiery debate over cyber-security, privacy and whistleblowing rages on. So, with the documentary and internet providing maximum information, what does docudrama Snowden do differently? Not much. We first meet Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) being kicked out of special forces for dodgy legs. A devastated young Snowden joins the CIA under Corbin O’Brian(Rhys Ifans)’s watchful eye. The computer genius rises up the ranks and delves further into the system. He finds the government and security agency NSA’s secrets. His discoveries affect his and long-term girlfriend Lindsay Mills(Shailene Woodley)’s relationship. Years later, he reaches out to documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen McAskill (Tom Wilkinson) for help.

Obviously, Snowden finds the dirty details, steals secrets then leaks them to the press before going into exile in Moscow, Russia. This ongoing story is far from reaching a peaceful conclusion. A better docudrama would have detailed the journey’s ethical, emotional and psychological toll. Sadly, like The Fifth Estate, Snowden becomes a straightforward, useless stunt. Unlike Citizenfour, or anything the internet would provide, its delivers little information about Snowden’s identity, job or life-changing events. Each sub-plot and conflict merely blurs together. Set to a sluggish 134-minute run-time, it shifts lackadaisically between life moments. Instead of building drama and dread, he moves between jobs and countries without any impact. For better or worse, the narrative explores the nitty-gritty of analyst/spy work (finding contacts, moving between outposts etc).

Oliver Stone is a veteran director out of his league. He began with jagged-edge thrillers (Wall Street, Natural Born Killers) and war-dramas (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July). However, his last few (from Alexander through to Savages) have bitten the dust. Like the latter efforts, Snowden drags a top-notch premise and cast through the mud. Being one of Hollywood’s most opinionated filmmakers, Stone’s interest in Snowden seemed promising. However, his paranoia is almost laughable. The second act, when not languishing in Snowden and Lindsay’s relationship politics, delivers extended montages about cyber-security. His old-man-yells-at-cloud approach broadly targets the US Government, multi-million dollar corporations and those behind the scenes. Stone clumsily attempts to jazz up desk-jockey work and hacking with flashy visuals. Levitt and Woodley escape unscathed, delivering stellar impersonations of real-life counterparts.

Snowden had potential to tell a detailed story, bring Stone back from career suicide and showcase a quality cast. Instead, it’s a meandering, boilerplate procedural with little insight or even basic information. Stone’s out-of-touch direction and point of view deliver a snooze instead of a success.

Verdict: A wasted opportunity.

Savages Review – Stone-r Flick


Director: Oliver Stone

Writers: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone

Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Benicio del Toro


Release date: July 6th, 2013

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 131 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Benicio Del Toro’s sadistic villain.

Worst part: The multiple endings.

Ever since Proposition 19 was announced, planning to make medicinal marijuana usage legal in California, this hot button issue has been discussed by both the US Government and Hollywood to varying degrees. With an issue as pressing as drug induced relief for dying patients, heavily opinionated director Oliver Stone has now thrown in his two cents. It comes in the form of his new flick Savages, a film containing a lot of talent but failing to sink any teeth into this pressing debate.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, JohnTravolta & Taylor Kitsch.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, JohnTravolta & Taylor Kitsch.

Savages is a toned down, confused yet stylish thriller, based on the exploits of US and Mexican drug cartels. Operating in California’s stunning Laguna Beach, two friends Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch – having a bad year after mega-flops John Carter and Battleship) run a near-perfect Cannabis manufacturing and distribution business, creating the rarest and most potent chronic available in California. Protected by corrupt DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta), the pair share a sun and sea-drenched life, along with a polyamorous relationship with Ophelia (Blake Lively). Their operation however attracts the interests of a Mexican drug cartel known as Baha, run by the seductive Elena (Selma Hayek). After turning down her prestigious offer, the two friends must then retrieve their girlfriend from Baha’s grasp, particularly steering clear of crazy cartel enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro). The two will lay down their version of the law, while escaping the clutches of the USA/Mexico drug scene.

Blake Lively & Salma Hayek.

Blake Lively & Salma Hayek.

Without the multi-layered and in-depth narrative of Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 Oscar winner Traffic, Savages sadly feels like a pale imitation. With inventive visuals, opinionated direction and noticeable thematic relevance, this is truly a Stone-r film (pun intended). Self confessed pot-fiend Oliver Stone, known for classic anti-establishment films such as JFK, Platoon and Wall Street, over the years has lost his affecting touch. His last few films, including W., Alexander and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, have been boiled down into overly serious yet goofy message-based propaganda. Savages is no exception, taking shallow pot-shots at the Obama Government, reality TV and the drug war without following through. It’s enough to say you are against certain issues in a democratic society, but without the investigative and strongly opinionated story elements of previous Stone films like Born on the Fourth of July, what is left is an empty and simplified pseudo-remake of Natural Born Killers. Stone does however create a derivative yet distinct sense of visual flair for this overly serious crime-thriller. Told from the perspective of Blake Lively’s character, her shattered point of view is illustrated through the fun and experimental use of quick cuts, lens flares, contrasting bright colours and black and white photography. Frustratingly taking the viewer out of this revenge-fantasy at every turn, Tony Scott’s shaking cameras and colour filters are also on display, conveying a hyper-kinetic look at the drug trade hopping across borders in more ways than one.

“I have orgasms, he has wargasms.” (O (Blake Lively), Savages).

Benicio del Toro.

The film is called Savages for a reason, displaying a shocking yet tasteful use of violence. Stone holds back from gratuity, lingering just enough on each bullet hole, cut and blood splatter to leave a lasting affect on these powerful characters, stuck in the middle of this interweaving standoff between law and cartel enforcement. The film sorely focuses too much on expressing an obvious and painfully monotonous look at a bad political situation. The film tells its story like a stoner expressing an idea; it starts off promising yet quickly descends into tedium and loses focus. Quickly becoming annoying is Lively’s continuous narration, filled with terrible puns (‘Wargasm’ and ‘12 step-dad program’ …Really?!) and obnoxious explanation of every twist and turn. The film contains many obviously black and/or white characters, mostly representing different factions in this seemingly important discussion. The three main characters are also reduced to two dimensional anti-heroes and victims, particularly due to the Yin/yang qualities of Ben and Chon. Ben is simply the charitable pot-head with a heart of gold, while Chon is the typical tough as nails war veteran with a taste for murder. Instead of an objective yet formalist discussion of race, crime and sex in the vein of City of God, the film presents a largely xenophobic representation of other cultures, particularly with every cartel enforcer portrayed as a laughable Mexican stereotype.

Despite Stone’s immense prowess (seriously, go watch his previous efforts), his last few films have fallen into easy-to-avoid traps. With Savages, his hyper-kinetic style clashes with its overbearing message – making for a truly unpleasant experience.

Verdict: A disappointing crime-thriller.