That is how President Obama described Edward Snowden in a press clip during the end credits of Oliver Stone’s latest blockbuster burner, "Snowden". Despite his talk about transparency and assistance to whistleblowers, Obama's administration has more or less towed the status quo in Washington. To denigrate a former intelligence worker and agent as “a hacker” draws unfair and incorrect parallels to groups like Anonymous and even movies like "Hackers," in which young hooligans take down and build up computer systems while drinking Mountain Dew and eating Doritos. At least, that’s the comparison Obama hopes to make. And why not treat it this way?
Laura Poitras’s "Citizenfour," the as-it-happened document(ary) about Snowden’s delivery and explanation of the data he was handing over in a Hong Kong hotel, was as tense and nerve-wracking as any recent film I've seen. We could feel the weight of the world resting on a few individuals as they talked with each other and huddled together, expecting police to knock down the door at any moment. In that presentation, Edward is likable and relatable enough, but more of a mysterious vessel and representation of spy game anxieties. In "Snowden," he’s been given, believe it or not, more of an identity; rather, he becomes more identifiable for mass audiences.
At the heart of Stone's film is the evolution of inner turmoil and disillusion with the U.S. government that Edward feels in his work. He begins as an idealistic post-9/11 Captain America gung-ho type, raring to join special forces but settling for CIA. He’s not Dick Cheney nationalistic, of course, but holds patriotic principles that he applies to his skills online. An expert for sure, he’s almost given an Imitation Game Alan Turing-style status as someone who could help win wars. Well, pre-emptive wars, anyway.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Edward with much resolve and surprising stoicism. Had all of this been happening to me, I would've played my hand more obviously, mostly through sweat glands. Gordon-Levitt's Snowden wants field action, but learns that he wouldn’t be the best at face to face confrontation. As the events draw near, he’s forced to adapt and prove himself capable of the biggest of tasks. Gordon-Levitt wears this in his eyes and his smile. The movie wears this in its cutting and on its sleeve.
Oliver Stone is not quite at peak self here, but has returned to form somewhat: quick cuts, changes in video and film look between time and settings, and visual trickery of subtle and not so subtle manners. In an office-to-webcam conversation with his friend/teacher/superior, played by the excellently righteous Rhys Ifans, Edward’s suspicions, his stress and the importance of what he must do become increasingly apparent.
Beyond the simple juxtaposition of a looming giant face on a screen over a normal-sized young man, there is a particular zoom-in closeup that floored me with both awe and laughter. No, it wasn’t a joke, but the snap speed of how it was done gave me that chilling response. Stone has a few other moments like this throughout that will feel cornball and cheesy, but they still work well enough in the context of the story. Heck, even the end credit Peter Gabriel song fits. Almost fits, anyway.
"Snowden" is as “anti-establishment” as a Hollywood production nowadays can get. Which means not by much, but subversiveness certainly hangs in the air. Where "Citizenfour" felt underground and something you’d watch in secret, "Snowden" is more "Fahrenheit 9/11": loud and trying to reach everyone in the auditorium from the front row to the back seats. It’s a movie that nearly goes out of its way to connect with everyone possible, but course corrects just enough to maintain its own voice. And very much so, this is in Oliver Stone’s angry and in-tribute voice.
I’ll never forget Obama appearing on Zach Galifianakis’s cult web show "Between Two Ferns" and making the joke that “no one is listening to your calls…” Nicely timed, nicely delivered, but with an attitude of carelessness. I guess if he treats it this way, we all should? Relax, the source is nothing more than “a hacker.”