"Snowden" is Oliver Stone's best movie in years (years that have included such trifling films as "Savages" and my-favorite-dictator docs on Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez). "Snowden" is a bit like "JFK," Stone's gripping 1991 fever dream about the Kennedy assassination; unlike that movie, however, this one isn't, you know, completely nuts.
Where "JFK" was a riot of paranoid speculation, "Snowden" is rooted in well-known facts about Edward Snowden, the CIA/NSA cyberwar specialist who downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified government files and turned them over to a British newspaper, The Guardian, for worldwide dissemination. The revelations in this bombshell lode of secret data, detailing the massive harvesting of civilian telephone and internet records by both U.S. and British intelligence, shocked even the most cynical citizens, and prompted sudden reforms (or so we're told).
Snowden's story has already been related in part in "Citizenfour," Laura Poitras's Oscar-winning 2014 documentary about the fugitive computer geek's tell-all meeting with two Guardian journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room. Stone's film begins with this encounter and keeps circling back to it. As in the documentary, we see Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) quietly astonishing his interlocuters — camera operator Poitras (Melissa Leo) and reporters Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) — with his trove of forbidden info.
Stone opens up the story to show us Snowden as a patriotic young man, washing out of the U.S. Army Reserve in 2004 after breaking both of his legs, and then — still hoping to serve his country — signing up with the CIA, in which he's mentored by a faintly sinister character named Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans). Snowden also meets a young woman named Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who works as — I think I have this right — a pole-dancing performance artist. Snowden is a political conservative at this point, Mills a proud lefty. (When they kiss, Snowden says, "Tastes like liberal.")
Nevertheless, Snowden and Mills move in together — although he's away a lot on clandestine missions, about which he can tell her nothing. In Geneva, a gum-chewing agency hacker named Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer) shows him how vast swathes of innocent emails from around the world can be swept up with a simple keyword search. Secret government FISA courts are supposed to regulate this sort of thing, but as Gabriel says, "FISA is just a big-ass rubber stamp.) A grinning local agent (Timothy Olyphant) also tutors Snowden in the art of blackmail, and another character lets him in on the truth about the War on Terror, the official justification for rampant government snooping: "This isn't about terrorism. Terrorism is the excuse."
Disgusted by all of this, Snowden quits the CIA, but then returns to the fold as a civilian intelligence contractor. Posted to Japan, he hopes that out-of-control government surveillance activities, set festering under the Bush administration, will be reined in by the newly elected President Obama, but no. "I was wrong," he says.
Snowden decides to go rogue after being posted to Hawaii (to spy on the Chinese). In a tingling scene, we see him downloading the classified files to a computer chip (which he cleverly conceals in a Rubik's Cube). Then he's off to Hong Kong to meet the Guardian team, and finally to Moscow, where Mills eventually joins him and where he continues to reside.
Stone keeps this tech-heavy tale moving along at a snappy pace, and Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography gives it a rich sheen. The supporting actors - especially Woodley - provide a lively balance to Gordon-Levitt's appropriately recessive performance. And Stone, back at his best with this film, stages a terrific scene in an Oahu communications room, where Snowden has an intimidating encounter with intel chief O'Brian, who looms above him on a wall-size screen in a chilling display of digital menace.
Stone shares the widespread perception of Edward Snowden as a heroic whistleblower, a man sacrificing his own freedom to sound an alarm about outrageous government lawlessness. (A campaign to pardon Snowden was launched this week, with the ACLU and Human Rights Watch signing on.) That the director ignores opposing arguments about Snowden's actions is no surprise, but they won't fade away. Since no country can afford to reveal all of its international activities in a hostile world, what is to be done about a government employee who decides, solely on his own judgment, to do just that?
Conservative National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson — no Snowden admirer — acknowledges the spikiness of the problem Snowden presents. Williamson deplores "the creation of a standard of selective prosecution under which official Washington can use leaks of classified information as a political weapon while at the same time using the prosecution of rival leaks as a political weapon...[W]hen Mr. Snowden protests that his prosecution is about politics rather than about the law, we have to concede that he does have a point."
'Bridget Jones's Baby'
Probably nobody was crying out for a third Bridget Jones movie — not 12 years after the last one, which wasn't so great in any case. But "Bridget Jones's Baby" is a bubbly surprise. It's funny beyond the call of chick-flickery, and it makes you wonder if maybe a fourth installment could be squeezed out of this surprisingly durable franchise. (Given the ending here, I'd say yes.)
Renee Zellweger, once again deploying a persuasive English accent, is back as Bridget. She's now 43 years old, and a top news producer at the London TV channel where she was once a hapless embarrassment. Although the last film concluded with her on the verge of marrying buttoned-up barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), that relationship subsequently collapsed. So Bridget is once again a singleton, and getting worried. "I'm beginning to think I've missed my sexual sell-by date," she says.
Determined to "take my ovaries out of retirement," Bridget agrees to join her colleague Miranda (wickedly droll Sarah Solemani) for a weekend at the annual Glastonbury Festival. Much music is heard (Ed Sheeran puts in a cameo), much drinking and dancing are done, and eventually Bridget stumbles into the wrong yurt and winds up sleeping with a good-looking American named Jack (Patrick Dempsey), an internet billionaire who's attending the festival on his own (let's not question this).
A few days later, Bridget is back in London attending a christening in her capacity as a godmother. The godfather is naturally on hand as well, and turns out to be ... Mark Darcy. Mark is married now — but wait, he's getting divorced. He and Bridget fall into bed together.
Not long after this, Bridget discovers she's pregnant. But who's the father — Mark? Jack? Only a DNA test can determine that, says Bridget's obstetrician (Emma Thompson, who also wrote the script, along with Dan Mazer and Bridget creator Helen Fielding). Bridget sets out to do some DNA sleuthing, without letting either of the two men know what's up.
It's good to have director Sharon Maguire back in charge here. Maguire, who directed "Bridget Jones's Diary," the first film in the series, stages sitting-and-talking scenes for maximum fun; and like Zellweger, she has a gift for physical comedy. (Bridget's emergency visit to a hospital is pure slapstick.)
It's also nice to have Firth back on the case, his unshakeable dignity besieged at every turn by all the silliness going on around him. And Dempsey is a likable replacement for the sly womanizer played by Hugh Grant in the first two pictures. (Grant declined to be part of this film, and so his character is depicted here as missing, presumed dead.) As for Zellweger, she remains an emblem of sweet insecurity and unconquerable pluck. She looks great here, and still commands a sizable reserve of pure adorability. If we must have sequels — and looking around the megaplex, it seems that we must — please let at least a few of them be as sharp as this one.