Only two years after the release of critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, director Oliver Stone tells the story of Edward Snowden – patriot, beautiful mind, whistleblower. Somewhat in line with Stone's oeuvre, Snowden ends up as a humanistic study of character, following the “making of a man,” rather than voicing a strong stance on politics and technological development.
The New York Times critic A.O. Scott describes the film as “a fictional making of feature about Citizenfour,” pointing at the fine distinctions of genre. This, however, is not the explicit aim of the director, and, in fact, Snowden fails to provide content of satisfactory complexity and detail to qualify as a making of feature. If anything, it is also a making of film, among being a drama with romantic and autobiographical overtones (Edward Snowden assisted Oliver Stone in writing the script), and a somewhat diluted thriller. What is, then, the achievement of this film? What is the relation of the narrative version with the documentary, and does this relation breed a new type of visual product?
By all accounts, fictional or otherwise, our reality is a confusing, complex and contradictory construction, which often seems to be collapsing in on itself. This is, to some degree, the sense we get every time a major hack, a compromising leak, or a “brave” whistleblower destabilise the digital realm that apparently makes the world go round. These are the new major social and political events, chapters in the history of our digitally lived existence. In this sense, the role of image production is essential to creating, framing, and circulating stories and meta-stories of this present, and encoding memories for the future. This is an unstable relationship between factual reality and visual reproduction; the type of filmmaking Snowden proposes adds to this instability, by overplaying the necessity of drama, affect, and suspense in producing a record of objective reality.
Of course, entertainment is the measure of cinema, and Oliver Stone is primarily a storyteller and entertainer. Nevertheless, a consistent play with visual form permeates Snowden; recording within recording, and framing of other framings appear on images of screens, relayed by other screens. We look at the main character through his girlfriend's camera lens, through that of Citizenfour maker Laura Poitras, displayed on a screen during a teleconference, even in a reflection of himself in a mirror. We watch original fragments of newscasts, drone footage, the hearing of the NSA Director, and soon see the character watching the same broadcasts: this places the narrative in a recognisable timeframe, and functions as a hook for audiences, inviting them to a “where were you?” sort of remembering, forcing the cinema-going public of Snowden to reclaim their initial role as witnesses to the events.
The narrative breaks often, from Edward Snowden's professional evolution, to the Hong Kong hotel room referencing Citizenfour, to beautiful visualisations and metaphors for our networked reality, to snippets of domestic and romantic drama. The cinematography, however, remains fluent, suggesting the overall service to coherent, well-behaved aesthetics: a rather calm, unsurprising and unambiguous film paradoxically tells a story of intricacy, complicated politics of surveillance, and confusing subjectivities in a digital world.
Citizenfour and Snowden can both be considered elements of Edward Snowden´s testimony, a generous confession from a rather tragic figure, operating moral codes outside of his political time. Although it restraints from portraying the character as either a hero or a villain, Snowden might be successful in humanising him. It remains, however, unclear to what extent this is a legitimate attempt from fictional narrative, historically a genre that creates an imaginative account of real events. Can we not grasp our reality without being charmed into imagining it, in soft colours and tones of romance?
Words: Elena Stanciu