Snowden (Oliver Stone, 2016)
Despite a prolific filmmaking career that began in the 1970s, picked up in the 1980s and then really kicked into high gear with the one-two-three knockout blow of Platoon (1986, for which he won the Best Director Oscar), Wall Street (1987) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989, for which he again won the Best Director Oscar), Oliver Stone slacked off in intensity some time in the 1990s, after making both JFK (1992) and Natural Born Killers (1994), powerfully righteous (some might say self-righteous) screeds against a system that takes its citizens for dupes. Even when tackling political subjects in subsequent movies like Nixon (1995) and W. (2008), Stone pulled his punches and let his characters escape what earlier would have been a fiery font of principled wrath. Well, that old Stone is back, and though his new movie, Snowden – about the NSA whistleblower previously profiled in Laura Poitras’s brilliant Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour (2014) – is far from perfect, it is mostly a welcome return to form from the man who last gave us the underwhelming Savages (2012). Perhaps it’s the influence of his Showtime documentary series The Untold History of the United States (2012-2013), or maybe it’s the current state of politics in our country, or maybe it’s legitimate outrage at both the government overreach that led Snowden to divulge his secrets and the ensuing government attempts to discredit and prosecute Snowden that just drove Stone crazy enough to wake the sleeping troublemaker within. Whatever the reason, Mr. Stone, it’s good to see you in truculent trim once more.
Right away, before the movie even begins, you notice the change in the director’s mien. With a cynical twinkle in his eye, he addresses the audience directly in a pre-screening PSA against cell-phone use in theaters that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and unsettling. It’s the perfect opening, setting the tone for all that follows, warning you not just about annoying the viewers in your row, but about the inherent dangers in all smartphone technologies, which allow “them” to track you. Shortly thereafter, we will meet “them,” and understand his alarm.
But first, we meet Snowden. As played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Walk), he’s a bundle of nerves hiding beneath a seemingly calm exterior. We’re in Hong Kong in June of 2013, and Poitras (Melissa Leo, Prisoners) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto, Margin Call) are meeting him – without yet knowing who he is – at the airport. They go back to his hotel room, and if you’ve seen Poitras’s film, much of what follows is familiar. Fortunately, Stone does far more than dramatize the events in the documentary. Shortly after the opening, he takes us back to 2004 and Snowden’s failed army training (injuries prevented him from serving), which in turn led him to the CIA. The Snowden of that time is not just a young and unquestioning patriot, but also a conservative one. Much like the journey of Jack Lemmon’s character in Costa-Gavras’s 1982 blistering critique of U.S. involvement in Chile, Missing), Snowden starts out believing only the good about his country, and ends up completely disillusioned. Helping him along in this journey is his liberal girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley, Divergent), who challenges him on his first date to question the reasons we went to war in Iraq. Still, it’s the dirt on government snooping that Snowden will uncover that really leads to his conversion, especially once Obama is elected and the mining of personal information only gets worse.
However you feel about Snowden’s actions – and, for the record, I believe we should pardon him, since the government misdeeds he uncovered were criminal – the strength of Stone’s film is the way he cuts back and forth between the conversations with journalists in 2013 and the evolution of Snowden’s career and beliefs. At first timid as he begins his CIA training, he later gains enough in confidence to speak out and resign when he sees things he doesn’t like. Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spider-Man), as Corbin O’Brien, a shadowy spymaster-cum-mentor who first admits Snowden into the CIA and then tracks his progress over the years, bringing him back into the fold even after he grows disillusioned, becomes this movie’s face of evil, pushing his ends-justifying-means agenda at all costs. And why this obsession with Snowden? According to the script, co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald (The Homesman) and based on two separate books – one by Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena and the other by British journalist Luke Harding – Snowden, though a high-school dropout, is unusually gifted in the art and technology of programming and hacking. His talent, once it’s noticed by O’Brien, is coveted as a necessary tool in our fight against terrorism, which makes his ultimate defection sting all the more (witness our congress’s recent report on why Snowden should not be treated as whistleblower). It’s a complicated story, to say the least.
But a well-told one. Whatever the truths of various elements of the plot, Stone does an excellent job cutting between times and keeping the characters clear in our minds. Sadly, what he doesn’t do so well is handle the relationship parts of the story, throwing in soggy sentiment – and even a sex scene – to humanize his protagonist. He also inexplicably adds Nicolas Cage (Joe) – who can be quite fine when he decides to give an actual performance – to the mix, and allows him full range to overact. Fortunately, he’s not in the movie for that long. Poor Woodely, though, does her best to make her underwritten girlfriend part meaningful, yet isn’t given enough to work with. These problems aside, as a gripping dramatic thriller made by a master visualist, Snowden delivers the cinematic goods. Even an over-the-top video call towards the end, where Ifans’s giant head towers over the diminutive Gordon-Levitt, though perhaps a little too obvious in its direct visualization of the power differential between the two men, is still effective. Speaking of Gordon-Levitt, he is wonderful in the part, bringing a troubled intensity and integrity to Snowden’s moral dilemma. Given how much Snowden, the man, is still very much a part of our national conversation, the movie, despite some flaws, deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Welcome back to the fight, Mr. Stone!