‘Snowden’ and the Unexpected Necessity of Oliver Stone

He’s not doing much that’s particularly new. But no other director has taken up his mantle.

Matt Zoller Seitz has a huge, heavy, comprehensive new book out about the life and films of Oliver Stone. It’s a good read all the way through, but it’s hard not to note how much more there is to say early on; late-period Stone has not, to put it mildly, been the best Stone. Your mileage my vary, but I have to go all the way back to 1999’s Any Given Sunday to find a really great feature that bore his name, and after the loud flop of Alexander (a movie he’s recut and re-released into approximately forty-seven different version) and the odd detour of World Trade Center, he began what looks like a campaign, conscious or not, to recreate his past successes.

First came 2008’s W., a spiritual sequel to Nixon; then came 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a literal sequel to Wall Street; most recently was 2012’s Savages, a rather desperate attempt to recapture the extremity of Natural Born Killers. And now we have Snowden, which feels he’s going for a 2016 JFK – a story of one brave man who takes on the lies and conspiracies of his own government, consequences be damned.

It’s no JFK, but few things are. It is the best thing he’s done in a while, though again, that’s not really saying much.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as government whistleblower Edward Snowden, with Stone constructing less of a conventional biopic than a dramatization of his life from 2004 to 2013 – the years in which he was discharged from the army, worked his way into intelligence, became aware of the vastness of American domestic surveillance programs, and took that evidence and information to journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill. That process was documented in Poitras’s Oscar winner Citizenfour, and the decision by Stone and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald to basically dramatize the events of that film as the framework for this one is, well, odd; it also makes the second fall in a row where Mr. Gordon-Levitt has starred in a film that was apparently made for people who like true stories but don’t like documentaries.

Yet his story does make for good drama. Gordon-Levitt is a convincing Snowden double, nailing the look and the specific timbre and rhythm of his speech, and his political awakening is a workable narrative arc to hang the story on – he goes from a conservative who doesn’t like “bashing my country” to a quiet liberal, thanks in no small part to his longtime girlfriend Lindsay (Shaliene Woodley). Their romance is mostly a drag – Stone hasn’t made much progress in his portrayals of male/female relationships since the nagging-wife stuff in JFK, that movie’s only serious flaw. But hey, it’s a long-ish movie, so it’s good to know when to take your bathroom breaks.

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That stuff all feels like obligation anyway – we know why Stone is here, and to his credit, he manages to smartly illustrate both the political and the personal. Dramatizing Snowden’s journey rather than just its destination allows Stone to open our eyes along with his protagonist’s, so once that framework is established, he can use his tricks of sound, vision, and paranoia to put us in “Ed”’s head. Snowden is ultimately a procedural thriller, detailing how he found out all he found out, and how he got it into the world. (The sequence of him copying those files has been done before, but thanks to the itchy camerawork and pounding score, the tension still ratchets.) And Stone ends up working a groove that’s somewhere in between dramatization and documentary, folding in real stills and archival footage as Snowden’s voice-over lays down exactly what we’re doing, and how “the only thing you’re protecting is the supremacy of our government.”

There are moments in Snowden that verge on outright corn, and others that cross well into it: his army tour is introduced with a sunrise march to inspirational music (complete with screaming black drill sergeant), and a flag waves in the breeze as he mouths the aforementioned “only thing you’re protecting” line. It’s easy to think Stone’s veering from the deployment of iconography to dusting off tired clichés, but this is where context and history matters. He didn’t give Born on the Fourth of July that title to be cute, and he didn’t drape the flag across the JFK poster to be ironic. He believes in this country, in the power of those images, and one of the key ideas that recurs throughout his work is that dissent is one of the greatest forms of patriotism – that holding our government accountable for its actions, as Snowden says here, “is the principle the United States of America is founded on.”

So you can say Snowden is unnecessary, you can point out its silliness, you can wonder if its director is spinning his wheels, since he’s not doing much that’s particularly new. But no other director has picked up the mission of advancing that message. And there is still a pressing need for it to be spread.

Snowden is out today.