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'Snowden,' 'Hell or High Water' and other films tackle our fractured, strange political climate

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in a scene from the movie "Snowden" directed by Oliver Stone. (Open Road Films/TNS)

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By JEFFREY FLEISHMAN | Los Angeles Times | Published: September 19, 2016

Oliver Stone's new film, "Snowden," arouses a pervasive creepy realization that every keystroke, conversation and cyber-desire we have is being collected by a shadow government scouring our lives and eavesdropping on our privacy under the guise of protecting us from endless bogeymen.

The movie, based on the life of Edward Snowden, the intelligence analyst whose leak of classified documents exposed the breadth of U.S. spying, brings Big Brother fears and covert surrealness into the hyper-connected 21st century. Snowden is portrayed as an everyman patriot compelled to reveal his nation's darker secrets to protect its Constitution.

It is one of a number of films this year that in resounding and subtle ways examine our fractured political climate and who we are as a country. Much of the American consciousness is bruised and bitter, troubled by the reach of terrorism, the stain of racism, the power of Wall Street and other news cycle disturbances pushed through the prism of a presidential campaign as fantastical as it is divisive.

Movies offer a momentary escape and a time to reflect on what Bob Dylan once described as forces that "shake your windows and rattle your walls." The illuminating power of cinema, dimmed a bit these days by comic book franchises and cultural shifts toward the small screen, prompted Gigi Pritzker, a producer and founder of OddLot Entertainment, to ask: "What does film do? What does it mean in this environment?"

Those questions resonate across a landscape that includes such recent and upcoming pictures as Pritzker's "Hell or High Water," writer-director David Mac-kenzie's stirring mediation on poverty and the aftermath of the 2008 recession; Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation," a searing retelling of a slave rebellion; Peter Berg's "Deepwater Horizon," a look at the biggest oil spill in U.S. history; and Disney's "Zootopia," a clever animated bunny tale about feminism and equality.

All these films wrestle with -- either directly or indirectly -- issues that have instigated national reckoning and informed the upcoming election: security and privacy ("Snowden"), financial insecurity ("Hell or High Water"), racism ("The Birth of a Nation"), the environment ("Deepwater Horizon") and diversity ("Zootopia"). Their layered stories and strong characters -- "Deepwater Horizon," which opens Sept. 30, focuses on the crew of an oil rig after a deadly explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 _ are meant to appeal to audiences rather than preach to them.

"It's also entertainment," said Pritzker. "It can't feel like medicine."

SOUL OF CINEMA

Making sense of our lives through the glint of imagination is the soul of cinema. But the clamor of everyday can be overwhelming. Films such as "Snowden," however, distill complicated narratives and examine pivotal events and personalities that shape our world. The abstract and the obscure become clear, spurring debate while leading us deeper into our prejudices and predispositions.

Reality and film have collided at times this year in unexpected ways, most notably with "The Birth of a Nation." A nearly two-decade-old rape accusation against Parker has distracted the lead-up to the movie's October premiere with questions of sexual abuse, race and women's rights. Parker was acquitted of the charges when he was a college student, but the circumstances have been revisited on op-ed pages and in a social media-driven court of public opinion.

Snowden comes with a lot of baggage too. He is, depending on one's politics, either hero or traitor. Despite living as a fugitive in Moscow, Snowden has become a phantom of the age, appearing beyond the grasp of U.S. authorities via the Internet at conferences to warn against government intrusion.

Played in the film with righteous resolve by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Snowden stands at the intersection of terrorism, technology, national security and civil rights. As told by Stone, whose films are extensions of his politics, Snowden is a constitutionalist convinced that Americans must know the scope of how their lives are secretly monitored. His classified documents revealed the wide net cast by the National Security Agency and other entities over our calls, emails and Web surfing.

Since Snowden's data dump in 2013, Apple and other technology and communications companies have increased encryption programs to protect customers' information. That was a victory for civil liberties advocates, but government officials saw it as a setback to tracking terrorists. James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, told reporters that "as a result of the Snowden revelations, the onset of commercial encryption has accelerated by seven years."

During the making of the film, Stone and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald met Snowden in Moscow. "Here's a kid who came out of a military family and grew up watching Fox News," said Fitzgerald. "He became the whistle-blower of the century. Being patriotic means standing up for principles rather than individuals or bureaucracies. That is the story of Snowden."

The movie traces Snowden's life from a young soldier forced out of the Army Reserve because of an injury to an intelligence contractor who watches from the hushed glow of government inner sanctums as agents spy on businessmen and drones kill suspected terrorists.

The film crystallizes how smartphones, laptops and social media have created a thicket of connectedness onto which many Americans have agreed to sacrifice a degree of privacy in exchange for safety. Snowden's unflappable disposition _ his face framed in glasses, his words weighted in logic _ steels his defiance against what he sees as a dangerous trade-off. It allowed him, said Fitzgerald, to "take on this unprecedented task to expose a grievous transgression of the U.S. Constitution."

TORN-UP DREAMS

Another kind a transgression seeps through "Hell or High Water," a sparse, poetic saga of two bank robber brothers set loose across a West Texas battered by recession, foreclosures, poverty and torn-up dreams. Toby (Chris Pine) and ex-convict Tanner (Ben Foster) roam through small towns reminiscent of the atmosphere in Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show." Toby's plan is to steal from the Texas Midland bank that led to his family's ruin and use the money to secure his children's future.

The landscape is brittle, decrepit and dotted with billboards offering loans and signs painted by unemployed, angry veterans. Wind vanes creak, sheds crumble in rust. It is present-tense America barbed with Texas grit: guns, pump jacks, scrub lands, cowboy hats and a plainspoken lawmen (Jeff Bridges) whose seemingly racist taunts toward his half-Mexican, half-Native American deputy veil a deeper friendship.

This is a land where the designs of larger financial forces in faraway places have wrought misery on middle- and working-class families struggling to hold on to their pioneer values of self-reliance. The film confronts that dilemma and takes aim at economic disparity that has led to identity politics and a surge in populism for many who see a country tilting toward decline.

"With all of its quirks and American weirdness, this movie is not speaking in a vacuum," said Pritzker, one of the film's producers. "One way or another, it's not about blue state or red state. It allows people to have conversations on a variety of things, whether it's banks, foreclosures or conceal-and-carry gun laws." She added that "sometimes there are different perspectives between rural and urban lives. But poverty is not urban, and it's not racial. It's socio-economic ... This movie is about (that)."

"Zootopia" is about other pressing and volatile matters. The Disney yarn about Judy Hopps, a bunny who wants to be the first rabbit to join a police force in a city populated by animals, delves into feminism, racism (or more aptly herd-ism), stereotypes and fear-mongering. The touch is light but the meaning sharp as Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin) and her sidekick, a fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), encounter crimes and misdemeanors on multiple levels.

It's a predator-and-prey story "that is an allegory for what we go through as human beings," said Byron Howard, who directed the movie with Rich Moore and Jared Bush. He added that when the film, which was five years in the making, was released in March, people asked him: "Did you have some weird foresight into what the world would be going through?"

Much of that is refracted through the eyes of lions, water buffalo, sheep, pigs and other creatures. The instincts of the animal kingdom become a metaphor for humans, especially when politics, including the anti-immigration rhetoric of Donald Trump, have jolted an America undergoing demographic change. Judy Hopps is one of Disney's more intriguing characters, a rabbit who harbors her own stereotypes even as she stands up to bullying and demands to be accepted as an equal.

"I'm disturbed by the bullying that has reared its head in this political cycle," said Moore. "Bullying is a form of discrimination, and it's on display so flagrantly ... . I don't see it as having any place in the leading of people." He added that these issues "deserve screen time, deserve to be talked about."

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(c) 2016 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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