Based on a popular Japanese manga and anime series, Death Note is an Americanized film adaptation that stars Nat Wolff as troubled teenager Light Turner, who discovers an ancient book with the title “Death Note” on its cover as it falls from the sky. Upon opening the text, he is encountered by an malevolent spirit named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), who explains that the magical book has, among other things, the ability to end the life of whomever Light chooses to write down on any of its pages. After a successful trial that gruesomely dispatches the school bully, Light teams up with classmate and burgeoning love interest Mia (Margaret Qualley) to purge the world of those whom the two teens deem undesirable.
The mysterious deaths of criminals and terrorists across the world sparks interest from international law enforcement as well as an inscrutable detective named only “L” (Lakeith Stanfield), who has managed to pinpoint the source of the killings to Light’s hometown of Seattle. Meanwhile, Light’s father (Shea Whigham), a local police officer, continues to work with L and a host of FBI agents to track down the killer while being oblivious to the fact that Light is responsible for the emerging pattern of murders. L soon narrows his suspicions on Light and after a coffee shop confrontation, Light races to discover L’s true identity so that he can be named in the book and removed from the equation.
Being unfamiliar with the source material, I went into Adam Wingard’s effort with an open mind about how he chose to adapt the sizable comic collection but it’s not hard to imagine that there was quite a bit of material that was lost in translation. There are no shortage of plot holes and pacing issues within this story, which starts out pretty well as a sort of twisted YA love fantasy but goes steadily downhill after a poorly conceived montage transitions the film into a more by-the-numbers police procedural. It’s a busy film packed with plenty of story details and arbitrary rules but every plot element feels like it was condensed down to its most basic form, largely devoid of nuance or subtext so as not to lose any couchbound viewers along the way (lest they get distracted by their smartphones during the movie).
Wolff and Qualley do what they can in their severely unwritten roles but too often they’re relegated to inhabit angsty teen archetypes, even from the opening scene when Light is seen sulking on a set of bleachers while Mia stands triumphantly blasé atop a pyramid of cheerleaders. In worse shape is Lakeith Stanfield, who has been brilliant in smaller roles so far this year (Get Out, War Machine) but is utterly lost in this twitchy, self-conscious role that is a flat-out terrible fit for his low-key charisma. By far the most memorable performer is Dafoe as the voice of the CGI creation Ryuk, who is basically reprising the cackling menace from his Green Goblin role in Spider-Man but nonetheless effective in doing so.
Despite the growing issues that I had with plot or performances, Death Note is not often a boring endeavor thanks mainly to the typically stylized direction from Adam Wingard that utilizes campy genre elements and cheeky 80s-inspired soundtrack choices to liven things up a bit. Sadly, the script credited to three writers (I’ll spare mentioning their names) is ultimately too leaden to lift as it favors an inelegant unpacking of its most basic narrative mechanics over character development or moral complexity. Perhaps the team here was too constricted by the feature film medium and a mini-series or full TV series would have been a better fit but as a standalone movie, I doubt it will reach any of the unconverted.
David Lowery reunites his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for this idiosyncratic and indefinable work that has some touching meditations on the passage of time but is largely aimless and didn’t quite land with me on an emotionally resonant level. A Ghost Story begins by introducing characters credited as C (Affleck) and M (Mara) as they share a few moments of quiet intimacy and are later awakened in bed to loud noises in another room. The following day, C is shown in the aftermath of what proves to be a fatal car crash but after M visits the morgue to identify her late husband, he awakens on the table and his spirit seems to envelop the white sheet that covers him.
His ghost then saunters back to their home, wordlessly watching his former wife grieve her loss (which, in one instance, manifests itself in an audacious one-take scene of Mara binge-eating an entire pie) and try to land on her feet as she contemplates whether or not to move out of their storied house. When she does eventually move away, the ghost is left in the house as time then begins to progress rapidly and he silently surveys future tenants unnoticed in his increasingly tattered outfit. In his isolation, C’s spirit wanders through space and time to search for answers and a way to move past the seemingly hopeless state of his quasi-existence.
Lowery settles on a more studied pace as he fixates on static shots centered around minimal bits action; one scene that depicts C lying lifeless on a body tray and then eventually rising up runs a little over 60 seconds, a lifetime by modern film editing standards. These long takes lend themselves to a more contemplative experience that allow us to take in every aspect of the frame (including the deceptively intricate costume design) and the patient storytelling juxtaposes poignantly against the fleeting nature of the ghost’s timeline, which seemingly can span years in a matter of “seconds”. To aid this effect, Lowery actually shot the ghost character at a different frame rate (33 frames per second than the traditional 24) than the rest of the scene and created a composite of the two for the final product.
Despite this low-key technical wizardry, A Ghost Story never fully landed for me and I chalk this up to the lack of emotional investment that I had in the characters and their struggles. We only spend a few moments with the central couple before one of them passes on and even in flashback, we’re not given enough detail into their lives together and the connection that they have to lead to some kind of eventual catharsis from their grief. After Mara’s M exits the story, we’re left with Affleck’s character as he sulks around his former house and tries to communicate with a neighboring ghost via subtitle, which probably wasn’t intended to be funny but had me laughing nonetheless.
There are ways in which this general story could have worked quite well but instead of making romance the centerpiece of the film, Lowery gets more existential and esoteric by taking a grander scope to the ghost’s tale and, in the process, loses the immediacy of the film’s earlier scenes. When he does eventually bring things to a close, the conclusion feels oddly unearned and a more saccharine send-off than the more ponderous narrative probably deserves. A Ghost Story showcases some well-honed artistic impulses but doesn’t have a compelling enough central story to make its flourishes come to life.
Alien: Covenant is a piece of franchise filmmaking that floats aimlessly in the cold and vast darkness of space, desperately seeking a reason for its own existence. Wedged chronologically between the ponderous Prometheus and the still unimpeachable Alien, it has neither the ambition of the former nor the genuine terror of the latter and further muddies the waters for those diehard fans who may still be thirsty for answers to questions that likely didn’t need to be asked in the first place. Like another recent flop Life, itself a ripoff of the Alien films, it features supposedly smart scientists making dumb decisions that lead them to square off against a creature that’s more frustratingly familiar than fearsome.
Taking place ten years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant follows the crew of the titular spaceship as they head towards a habitable planet with a plan for colonization but when they cross paths with a seemingly more suitable planet, their captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides it’s worth an investigation. While on the initial expedition, two crew members come in contact with alien spores that cause a gruesome demise for those infected and imminent danger for the remaining crew by way of newly spawned skittering creatures. After being saved by a mysterious inhabitant (Michael Fassbender), he fills the Covenant group in on the secrets that exist within the ominous new world that they’ve chosen to uncover.
This is Ridley Scott’s third time in the Alien universe and I’d like to believe that he’s returning to these projects for passion above paycheck but there are indications here that he’s more interested in reveling in the glory of his previous successes rather than adding something meaningful to its mythology. He also falls into the increasingly common problem with prequels which involves unnecessarily demystifying aspects of the original work to the degree that their novelty becomes diminished in hindsight. There’s really no need to explain away every facet of how these alien creatures came to be or how they function and deconstructing the nature of their existence makes them less “alien” than they were intended to be in the first place.
Even though Prometheus was also guilty of these sins, at least it was committed to its inquisitiveness with a keen sense of wonder and a human sense of trepidation when exploring the universal questions that have kept mankind at bay for centuries. Aside from an excellent prologue that reunites Fassbender with Prometheus co-star Guy Pearce, Covenant forgoes any existential musing in favor of painfully conventional slasher-inspired horror sequences replete with gratuitous bloodshed and often unconvincing CGI. It’s also difficult to root for a group of seemingly intelligent people who make bafflingly bad choices; I’m no scientist but even I can tell you that setting foot on an uncharted planet without a space suit is probably a poor idea.
Before my screening, my theater played a promising trailer for the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, a belated sequel to another Ridley Scott masterpiece that could be counted among my most anticipated movies of the year. Besides a talented cast and a technical team that includes Johann Johannsson and Roger Deakins, the film is being helmed by visionary director Denis Velleneuve, who is looking to capitalize on the success of last year’s breakout hit Arrival. Perhaps it’s time to let another creative voice have control over the Alien franchise as well because if Alien: Covenant is any indication, Scott may have finally run out of story to tell in this sci-fi saga.
It seems Hollywood is always a step behind when it comes to addressing our rapid shifts in technological development and this occasionally thought-provoking but narratively inert thriller is a perfect example of that disconnect. The Circle warns of the dangers of digital interconnectivity and full immersion into social media but it takes these concepts to such hyperbolic highs that it feels more alarmist than enlightening. Besides coming across as technologically tone-deaf, the movie also introduces more plot points and storylines than it can possibly keep up with and cuts many of them off with an abrupt ending that’s lazy and unsatisfying.
The story involves a bright young woman named Mae (Emma Watson), who gives up her dead-end job to join The Circle, a nebulous Apple/Facebook/Google-type digital conglomerate headed up by the charismatic Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). She soon distinguishes herself among her cohorts (“guppies”, as they’re affectionately titled) and rises up the ranks to become one of the company’s chief creative strategists, pitching ideas to improve their TrueYou platform. After spending more time at The Circle, Mae begins to peel back the picture-perfect corporate culture to reveal darker secrets that lurk under the surface with the help of a mysterious employee played by John Boyega.
Director James Ponsoldt, who’s responsible for winning indie dramas like The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, has a talent for bringing out the intimate and human dimensions in his stories, so it’s no wonder that he’s such a poor match for this material given its preference for machine over man. Save for a pair of performances by Glenne Headly and the recently deceased Bill Paxton as Mae’s parents, the movie is sorely lacking any kind of emotional anchor upon which to tether any kind of techno-paranoia that may develop from the story. Mae’s doting boyfriend Mercer, played with a stunning lack of conviction by Boyhood star Ellar Coltrane, could be seen as the film’s moral backbone if it bothered to take a defined stance on the role technology should play in our day-to-day lives.
Ponsoldt doesn’t get much help from a Dave Eggers-penned script, adapted from his 2013 novel, that introduces far too many plotlines that seem to come out of left field (Mae’s story, for instance, takes a complete 180 around the halfway mark) and negate whatever narrative momentum has already been established. He has so much that he wants to say about how this kind of new technology could affect how we live and yet very few of his points are woven into the story with the kind of cohesion that would make them salient or intriguing. It plays like a half-baked episode of Black Mirror that has all of the neat gadgetry and starring roles figured out but doesn’t have enough new insight on its subject material.
Despite its apparent lack of focus, there are nuggets of inspired concepts buried within the needlessly convoluted story that suggest a more pointed or satirical take on how interact with our plethora of devices. There are visual cues like the slow proliferation of screens at Mae’s desk to the sea of illuminated emblems in an audience enamored with their tablets that subtly remind us just how inundated we are with bright new distractions every day. In the film’s best scene, Mae tells an employee conducting her job interview that her greatest fear is unfulfilled potential and if that’s the case, there’s no doubt that The Circle would have terrified her.
The new sci-fi horror mashup Life follows a crew of astronauts aboard the International Space Station as they successfully secure a speeding space probe from Mars that may hold the secret of life forms beyond Earth. After taking a sample from the planet’s soil, the ship’s biologist (Ariyon Bakare) discovers a single-celled organism that he’s able to revive with atmospheric adjustments and the slimy new passenger soon turns into a more complex being before their very eyes. When an experiment goes wrong in the lab one day, the new creature (who comes to be nicknamed Calvin) escapes his containment area and becomes increasingly hostile towards the astronauts on board.
The good news is that everything prior to the title card, say the first 15 minutes or so, is first-rate and includes a one-take tracking shot that expertly captures the crew in the middle of a mission as the camera zips around effortlessly in the zero-gravity environment. The bad news is that subsequent hour or so is poorly scripted, unmemorably acted and worst of all, highly derivative of other space horror films like Alien and Sunshine. From a conceptual standpoint, it feels like a rebuttal to The Martian, which is about one astronaut stranded in space who uses his intelligence and scientific know-how to navigate through his dire situation.
Life inverts this scenario and instead assigns us to a group of scientists with the kind of lackluster decision-making capabilities that have seemed to plague screaming teenagers in slasher movies for years now. Nearly every choice or plan that’s made by any character seems ill-advised and devoid of any common sense, to the degree that they’re not believable as top researchers in their respective fields, much less as reasonably smart people to begin with. This is a movie about the search for intelligent life and it seems that before Calvin enters the space station, there’s none to be found on board among the incompetent crew.
It also doesn’t help that the characters are not very well-established either, as director Daniel Espinosa is clearly in a big hurry to show us his ever-expanding digital monster rather than give us a crew worth rooting for in the first place. That’s a shame since the cast includes charismatic and capable performers like Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson who aren’t able to use their star power to put some life into their one-dimensional roles. The screenwriting duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick eschews any wit and flavor they may have had left from last year’s Deadpool script and instead settles for flat, perfunctory dialogue peppered with technical goobledigook for good measure.
The film doesn’t score many points on the dramatic and science fiction fronts but if you’re expecting a simple, space-set slasher movie, then there is some fun to be had as the crew members are dispatched in creative and often unexpected ways. The visual design for Calvin starts off a bit silly, as he initially flops around the lab like a squishy sponge but he continues to grow into a more sophisticated and menacing foe throughout the story. Aside from some of these horror elements and a promising opening sequence, Life is generally underwhelming and frequently reminds us of how much better it could have been.
The new French film Elle from Paul Verhoeven, his first in ten years, opens in the aftermath of a sexual assault committed against middle-aged businesswoman Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) in her home. Instead of cutting to the next scene in a hospital or police station, Verhoeven chooses to stay with her as she picks herself up and cleans up the broken debris from the floor, almost as if she is unfazed by the attack. While there are some minor signs of emotional trauma, life generally seems to move on for Michèle as she proceeds to order takeout food moments later on her phone.
Over the next two hours, we discover more about the machinations of her busy life: her executive role at a well-regarded video game company, the strained relationship with her meek son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his bossy girlfriend, along with the affair that she pursues with the husband of her co-worker and best friend Anna (Anne Consigny). While out to dinner one night, she opens up to her friends about the details of the shocking event that happened to her days previous but she does so in such a blasé and matter-of-fact way that they’re unsure just how to react to the information. As she continues her daily routine, Michèle methodically makes strides towards unveiling her assailant and presumably confronting him for his role in the attack.
By my estimation, Verhoeven has crafted this story as a sort of subversion to the traditional rape revenge tale that we’ve been told before but the result is a distracting mishmash of office politics and turgid family drama that muddles what it seems the film wants to achieve. The core material is provocative and problematic enough to carry along undisturbed but just when there seems to be a breakthrough, we’re introduced to more uninteresting characters or more subplots that ultimately don’t add up to much. It’s a shame that the film is so overstuffed because it does have some salient points to make about consent and sexual politics but the storytelling is too unfocused to make the themes resonant.
Despite the aimless direction, the central performance by Huppert (recently deemed the Best Actress in a Drama by the Golden Globes) almost makes the movie worth seeing on its own terms and gives it a spark that it would otherwise be lacking. Most actresses wouldn’t even think about approaching material this brazen or have the bravery to pull off some of the trickier scenes but she casts an indelible mark on the film with her eccentric work. It’s a sly and sophisticated turn that underlines a character who is fundamentally enigmatic and still vulnerable and empathetic at the same time.
But she doesn’t have the support system that she needs from other aspects of the film to pull it all together. Beyond some of the more bizarre story elements that come out of left field (a serial killer past, various bouts of vandalism and voyeurism), other technical aspects like the rote musical score by Anne Dudley and the dismal visual effects in the scenes that depict the video game being developed by Michèle’s company seek to undermine any progress that Huppert commands on her own. Elle made me leave the theater scratching my head in bewilderment rather than consider the implications of its troubling story and I doubt that’s the effect Verhoeven intended for his film to have.
Marvel adds a new superhero to its ever expanding Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange, a visually arresting actioneer that’s frequently undermined by muddled mythology and a lethal lack of narrative cohesion. These films obviously cater most to the comic book fans who are already familiar with these characters and this world but for newcomers, whom I suspect will comprise the majority of the audience, the “anything goes” nature of this mystic arts setting should inevitably lead to some serious head scratching. Even the more fantastical superheroes like Thor and Hulk are still bound by tangible principles that tie them to the real world but as soon as Strange crosses over into different dimensions, it’s clear that it doesn’t want to play by any discernible set of rules.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the titular neurosurgeon, who is introduced as a haughty concoction of MCU favorite Tony Stark and TV’s Dr. House, though he doesn’t have half of the charisma of Robert Downey Jr. or Hugh Laurie. A near fatal car accident leaves him without the use of his hands, effectively ending his medical career and forcing him to scour the world for a solution. His journey leads him to Nepal and specifically the temple of Kamar-Taj, where Strange meets a wise mystic referred to as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and another master of magic named Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Being a steadfast man of science over faith, Strange is initially resistant to their spiritual methods of healing but is quickly made a believer when the Ancient One opens his eyes to phenomenons like inter-dimensional travel and astral projection. He dedicates himself to the practice of mystic arts and progresses quickly, which allows him to square off against the fallen sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) as he plots to unleash a powerful evil from the Dark Dimension onto Earth. Strange’s love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) also turns up from time to time as a fellow surgeon who is asked to perform spontaneous operations on key protagonists.
You probably get the sense that this film is all over the map not only in the literal sense but also in terms of narrative and tonal ambition. Perhaps Strange warrants a more lengthy investigation through a miniseries like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage recently received on Netflix because two hours just doesn’t seem like nearly enough to cover this ground. I don’t envy the task of director Scott Derrickson to introduce us to a brand new superhero while also explaining the boundaries of a conceptually complex new setting but he does a poor job at doing either with any sense of personal flavor.
It doesn’t help that the attempts at humor almost unanimously fall flat (unless seemingly stoic characters jamming out to Beyoncé is up your alley) and more laughs instead stem from the unintentional side of things. There’s something overwhelmingly silly about the way Strange and a rival spirit duke it out in the astral plane while hospital objects in the real world move the slightest inch to suggest their otherworldly involvement. Doctor Strange is a bewildering mess of a Marvel movie, not without some admirable visual trickery but also not a worthwhile addition to the already packed stable of heavy hitters in the MCU.
The would-be Hitchcockian thriller The Girl on the Train stars Emily Blunt as the newly divorced Rachel, who copes with her loneliness by turning to alcohol and spending her days as a passenger on a train that passes by her old neighborhood. From the comfort of the cabin car, she’s able to keep tabs on her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), along with their newborn daughter Evie. Her subtle stalking takes a dark turn when she spots their next door neighbor Megan (Haley Bennett) in the midst of an affair and decides to confront her about the alleged behavior.
The primary mystery then centers around the Megan’s subsequent disappearance but to keep audiences guessing until the final reveal, director Tate Taylor constructs his story in a way that cheaply exploits Rachel’s alcohol-induced blackouts as a narrative gimmick. The fuzzy flashbacks grow in definition not because our protagonist is actually remembering things more clearly but rather because Taylor arbitrarily chooses which extra shot or camera angle he can add to hypothetically boost the suspense. The details of a key event prove to be more tedious than titillating with each re-visit and I was eventually hoping an extra was strapped with a GoPro somewhere in the scene so that we could finally get one coherent shot and just be done with it.
Of course such a notion is far too frivolous and playful to be considered by any of these characters, who are seldom allowed to exist outside a narrow spectrum of misery and self-loathing. Everyone is painted with the same broad strokes of discontent in a manner that feels both needlessly glum and wholly manufactured to make the audience mistake their moodiness for maturity. Only a handful of character interactions register as authentically human, while the rest are ripped straight from the soap operas and potboilers that likely acted as inspiration for the bestselling novel from which the movie was adapted.
These fleeting moments of honesty are brought forth from a staunchly committed performance by Blunt, whose Rachel serves as one of the film’s sole access points for empathy and humanity. Her bruised heroine mirrors the struggles of Nicole Kidman’s character from the thriller Before I Go To Sleep but Rachel’s alcohol dependency adds another challenge from a physical acting perspective atop the emotional workload that’s already in place. As an unreliable narrator, she forces us to battle our sympathy for her situation with our allegiance towards a version of the story that’s both sensible and satisfying.
The casting elsewhere is first-rate and the lack of other standout performances is likely a symptom of the sub-par material rather than a deficit of talent from the actors. As the sullen sexpot Megan, Haley Bennett reminded me of a more blasé and less relatable Jennifer Lawrence and Rebecca Ferguson, a revelation in last year’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, doesn’t have the chance to develop anything meaningful in her repressed role. With awkward direction from Tate Taylor and a screenplay that favors shallow reveals over believable drama, The Girl on the Train simply doesn’t have what it needs to stay on track.
Christian Bale teams back up with The New World director Terrence Malick for Knight of Cups, a meditative and meandering work that ultimately squanders the abundance of talent behind and in front of the camera. Malick has never been one to put forth a concise premise or to craft crisp, linear storytelling but the structure here is detrimentally loose and unnecessarily arduous, especially given the enticing subject material. I’m all for a well-told existential crisis movie but when context and setup are intentionally kept to a bare minimum, it goes a long way to stymie any sort of initial enthusiasm.
We follow forlorn Hollywood executive Rick (Bale) through various stages in his adult life, the majority of which involve his most crucial female relationships and almost all of which take place throughout the Los Angeles area. Like the film’s title, each of its eight chapters takes its name from a tarot card that ostensibly describes a corresponding character or concept in Rick’s life. The most notable of the tableaux include The Hermit, in which playboy Tonio (Antonio Banderas) serves as Rick’s spiritual guide through a swanky celebrity gathering, and Judgement, which documents the fallout of his failed marriage from ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).
These stories are intermittently interesting on their own but there’s very little connective tissue between them that allows for momentum to build up to something meaningful. They could practically be told out of order and I don’t imagine it would have a great effect on the final product, which doesn’t bode well for any sort of poignancy that’s supposed to come from the narrative. The agile camerawork of the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki is always seeking out transfixing shots of beauty and wonder and it’s no coincidence that his unique sense of vision is often the most engrossing aspect of the film.
Anything to distract from the odiously overwrought sentiments recited by the multitude of talented actors in the style of hushed voiceover for which Malick has come to overuse in his more recent work. With its moody settings and pretentious tagline narration, the overall effect is not unlike watching 120 one-minute fragrance ads in a row with all of the closing pitches removed. The problem is that this movie doesn’t even know what it’s selling in the first place. If I’m supposed to feel bad for Rick as he bounces around the most affluent parts of LA and mopes about his luxurious circumstances, I’m not buying.
Bale’s largely vapid and charmless performance doesn’t explain why his character would garner the attention of these gorgeous women who can’t wait to throw themselves at him but more importantly, it also doesn’t root the narrative with much emotional honesty. His apathy bleeds into the disposition of the surrounding characters to the degree that everyone is just a little too cool and removed to be remotely relatable. Malick is an undeniably great filmmaker and he’ll find his way again, so I choose to consider Knight of Cups a spiritual hiccup rather than a career-halting dead end.
Even the efforts of the eminently talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt aren’t enough to lift this leaden biopic, which strains hard to be about Edward Snowden The Human as opposed to Edward Snowden The Headline. In his effort to humanize the now infamous NSA whistleblower, director Oliver Stone spends far too much of Snowden‘s 140 minute runtime cataloging personal details of its subject’s life in a manner that’s shoddy and predictable from the first scene. Stone’s never been known to be a particularly eloquent dramatist to begin with and his commercially friendly approach to this potentially provocative subject matter adds very little to the international conversation on mass surveillance and privacy in the digital age.
The film, which is told largely in a series of drawn out flashbacks, centers around Snowden’s pivotal meeting in Hong Kong as he discloses the classified documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). As Snowden begins to open up to filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in their hotel room, we learn about his early training days in the army, his various positions within the intelligence community and the romantic relationship with his photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). After the data is eventually leaked to the press, we follow Snowden as he finds temporary asylum in Russia amid staggering criminal charges brought on by the US government.
Perhaps I’m a cold hearted person but the fact is that I just don’t care about Snowden’s personal dilemmas and hangups nearly as much as I care about his role as a catalyst for the important public debate that he brought about with his actions. I’m not interested in pointless subplots like one involving Timothy Olyphant as a shady CIA operative and I’m even less interested in the 10 total minutes of screen time that Nicolas Cage has as a squirrelly NSA mentor. As an obsessive filmmaker, Stone is wont to get wrapped up in these kinds of trivial details that obscure the message he’s trying to convey.
He clearly wants Snowden’s relationship with Mills to be the heart of the story but Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley don’t have the kind of chemistry that makes their love believable or worth rooting for. Both have done terrific work in other projects but their interactions here feel so forced and rarely does it seem like they’re emotionally on the same page with one another at any given moment. In particular, their hollow conversations about politics come across as the characters acting as a mouthpiece for the respective political parties they represent rather than resembling any kind of realistic talk that couples might actually have with one another.
The only scenes that have any sort of dramatic thrust are those with Snowden, Poitras and the two journalists in the Hong Kong hotel and it’s a shame that there isn’t a movie that focuses solely on these four individuals as they race against news deadlines and a relentless press force that seeks to expose them. Except there is; it’s called Citizenfour and it won Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars last year (it’s even streaming online for free here). If you’re truly interested in this material, you’re much better off watching the vastly superior documentary and leaving Snowden out in the cold.