Oliver Stone has spent his career offering up provocative historical portraits of key moments in American history. After serving up a series of masterful and often incendiary films across the 1980s and 1990s including Platoon, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon, his work began to fall a little flat. Over the last decade he's given us several toothless and uninspired films from a remarkably inert George W. Bush biopic to an oddly contained disaster-film take on September 11 with World Trade Centre.
In Snowden, Stone is taking on one of the most controversial stories of our time. When Edward Snowden leaked classified information to a group of journalists in 2013 a fire was ignited in the international conversation over how far the government should reach into our personal lives for the sake of national security. Snowden's revelations stunned the world while also reminding all of us that we now comprehensively live our lives through a technology that is asking us to redefine old notions of privacy.
With this generally traditional biopic, Oliver Stone defiantly gets his enfant-terrible groove back despite delivering an unexpectedly restrained take on the divisive figure.
Fans of Laura Poitras' magnificent documentary Citizenfour can be forgiven for wondering what Snowden could bring to the conversation that they didn't already know. Unsurprisingly, Stone's film not only isn't much more revealing than Poitras' documentary, but it also utilizes a peculiar bridging device that literally recreates those infamous Hong Kong hotel scenes from 2013.
It's startlingly disconcerting to watch key moments from the documentary recreated with Hollywood actors, as Poitras (Melissa Leo), Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan McAskill (Tom Wilkinson) move through the same narrative that was so comprehensively chronicled just a couple of years ago. The main bulk of Snowden, though, takes us chronologically through Edward Snowden's story beginning with his initial recruitment into the CIA in 2004 after a training accident rendered him unable to continue his career in the Special Forces.
One of Stone's most interesting early tactics is to portray Snowden as a young conservative refusing to sign anti-war petitions and talking positively of Bush's aggressive foreign policies. This lays the foundation for the film's most dominant strategy in trying to justify Snowden's ultimate actions – depicting a burgeoning disillusionment with his government's increasingly indefensible overreach into the lives of its citizens.
The film takes an effectively two-pronged approach to the topic. Its primary function is to humanize Snowden and show him to be a regular guy who, over the course of nearly a decade, turned from someone who single-mindedly supported the government to someone who felt it was their patriotic duty to reveal what he saw as unethical and illegal overreach.
The on-again off-again relationship dynamic between Snowden and his long-term partner Lindsay Mills is frustratingly repetitive and, while obviously important to the greater story, result in this long film's major shortcoming. By the time we reach the couple's third break-up, fight, and separation, the film's momentum has ground to halt. Despite its potential historical accuracy the repeated rhythms of these scenes add nothing to the narrative and only serve to frustrate rather than illuminate.
More interesting, and most successful, is the film's secondary strategy of having characters frequently engage in conversations surrounding the hot-button issue of privacy versus security. Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald have crafted a screenplay that manages to cleverly function as a mirror for every conflicting editorial or argument that's been generated over the past couple of years on this topic. Not worried about the government peering into your emails because you've got nothing to hide? The film addresses that. Were these enhanced NSA surveillance projects important to protect the safety of American citizens? The film discusses that.
In fact one of the most surprising aspects of Snowden is how fairly it presents all sides of this complex and contentious conversation. Those concerned that Oliver Stone was going all out on a socialist, anti-government bender need not worry. Apart from a few melodramatic moments featuring Rhys Ifans' senior NSA figure and a hilariously slimy performance from Timothy Olyphant as a CIA agent, the film presents government workers as patriotic human beings simply doing their jobs the best they can (and yes, the film even directly discusses the infamous Nuremberg defense, noting that those government operatives who were "just following orders" are as much to blame as their superiors when they don't stand up to challenge directives they see as unethical or illegal).
Politically the film is obviously strongly pro-Snowden, but never uncomfortably so, at least until we reach the mildly hammy ending. Despite some amusingly ominous "We were wrong about Obama" moments, for the most part Stone tries to calmly tell Snowden's story from fact to fact in a very straightforward way, which in today's political climate is a subversive act in and of itself.
Whether you believe Snowden's acts were right or wrong Stone's film does an impressive job in simplifying and explaining what exactly the American government was doing over these years and how far it was able to reach into the personal data and lives of its citizens. It's here where the film shines and really stakes a claim to being important. At one point the film virtually stops and slips into a documentary-style montage explaining how PRISM, the NSA's controversial data-gathering program, functions and at another point a character turns directly to the camera to explain the complex FISA court process.
In these stretches the sophistication of Stone's cinematic propaganda is impressively sharp. We witness the government scraping an immense volume of personal, private information and the film makes it very clear that this is often being utilized for reasons that are not directly security related. Snowden's catch cry, "This was not about terrorism, it was about social and economic control," is discomfortingly illustrated. It's a clever ploy by Stone, and while the film is certainly not free of an agenda, it does present an astute argument.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is unexpectedly superb in his portrayal of Snowden, not only completely disappearing into the character with a nuanced take on a man fighting an internal battle between patriotism and politics, but also magnificently capturing the interesting cadence of the man's speech. There were moments when the film reenacted scenes from Laura Poitras' documentary and I genuinely wasn't sure whether they had surreptitiously slipped the real Snowden in or not.
Aesthetically the film is also relatively restrained for Oliver Stone. He occasionally plays around with video formats but for the most part this is a clean, crisp, and satisfyingly digital film. Stone does gives us one lovely aesthetic flourish in a fade from a circuit board to an office building that, despite being a thuddingly obvious visual metaphor, plays impressively in context of the moment.
In a world where the Snowden conversation is still explosively divisive this film comes across as surreptitiously subversive. It's not a great film by any means, suffering from a maddening lack of narrative momentum and an irritating sense of repetition but released in the lead up to America's most contentious election in decades it feels like a mine dropped into the national subconscious. You may not agree with Stone's politics, or even with the agenda of the film, but it's certainly good to have this cinematic trouble maker back in action stirring the pot.
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