SNOWDEN * * *
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans, Scott Eastwood and Nicolas Cage. Screenplay by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone. Directed by Oliver Stone.
There’s a level on which I guess you could say that Snowden is Oliver Stone’s most conventional film. It’s missing the jagged edits, manic pacing and fevered insistence that made his early pictures feel like the filmmaker was jabbing a finger into your chest for emphasis as you watched them. At first, the seventy-year-old writer-director’s twentieth theatrical feature seems like a seriously square endeavor, adhering to tried-and-true biopic tropes while unambiguously endorsing the heroism of its subject. Formally, this is the kind of traditional Great Man biography rolled out every Oscar season that could just as easily be about creating the polio vaccine. It’s the sort of thing that gets shown in high schools, with a tone only a smidge more incendiary than that movie in which Greg Kinnear invented intermittent windshield wipers.
But then again, none of those movies ever ended with a clip of the Republican presidential nominee calling for their subject’s execution. The great, punk rock gag of Snowden is that Stone somehow managed to make a straightforward Hollywood hagiography about a fugitive hiding out in Russia who a sizeable (though shrinking) portion of the population considers a traitor. “I’m a mainstream filmmaker,” Stone himself told me ten years ago, “I don’t want to just play in Boston arthouses.” Here he’s using those mainstream skills and familiar formulas to make his case for Edward Snowden as a wrongfully persecuted patriot. You could wish for a wilder, crazier Snowden, but that movie would be much easier for detractors to dismiss. This is a work of advocacy intended to preach beyond the choir.
Now, it is a fair question to ask why anyone who hates Edward Snowden would ever go see a film about him in the first place (especially a film about Edward Snowden directed by Oliver Stone) and sadly, the box office returns seem to indicate that even the whistleblower’s partisans sat this one out. What’s not fair is the common critical complaint that this film is irrelevant thanks to Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ Academy Award-winning 2014 documentary in which we watch Snowden leak NSA files to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. This movie has entirely different aims and goals, not to mention that only a film critic would make the asinine assumption that a documentary could have the kind of populist impact Stone was clearly striving for here. (A bona fide box office bomb, Snowden still sold more tickets on opening day than Citizenfour sold its entire run.)
Taken on its own terms, this is a damned effective piece of moviemaking. It’s solidly crafted, sturdily told and in general just plain entertaining. Like most Oliver Stone pictures, it’s a parable of disillusionment, with Edward Snowden taking his place along Born On The Fourth Of July’s Ron Kovic and JFK’s Jim Garrison as men who love their country so much they risk everything by speaking out to try and save it from itself. Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing an eerie replication of his real-life counterpart’s Butt-head voice, Ed’s an overly polite babe in the woods, so blissfully naïve the tech-bros around the bunker nickname him “Snow White.”
As in most Stone movies, we find our protagonist torn between two mentors. Nicolas Cage makes a delightful appearance in a basement office surrounded by encryption machines, playing an instructor put out to pasture by the CIA for being burdened by personal ethics. (It’s great to see him in a big film again, albeit too briefly.) Rhys Ifans oozes malevolence as an NSA honcho with a particular interest in our boy genius, sizing him up the way a starving man might stare at a steak. There’s a nifty rogue’s gallery in the supporting cast, each taking turns disappointing and horrifying our Snow White. Top prizes go to Timothy Olyphant as an amusingly amoral field agent and Scott Eastwood as a douchebag office drone. (The latter looks like his father with all the integrity sapped out. It’s a fun bit of casting.)
Anyone who saw JFK can tell you that Oliver Stone has few peers when it comes to conveying massive amounts of information, and Snowden does an admirable job of explaining the nuts and bolts of projects such as XKeyscore and PRISM without making your eyes glaze over. (He even visualizes some of the hacks like acid trips from The Doors.) The screenplay, written with Kieran Fitzgerald, isn’t bashful about spelling out the film’s big themes, although not without a punchy wit – as when a backyard party discussion of the Nuremberg trials ends with a toy drone malfunctioning and crashing down onto a picnic table.
What doesn’t work is the love story between uptight Ed and his free-spirited, hippie girlfriend played by Shailene Woodley. Stone was never great at domestic scenes to begin with, but lately his films have been hobbled by a weirdly grandfatherly indulgence of young people in love as some kind of redemptive force. This soft spot crippled Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and did a number on the otherwise awesome Savages. (The only time it’s ever worked was in Natural Born Killers but I thought that was supposed to be a joke.) Woodley’s proven herself a fine actress in other films but she’s an excruciating nag in this one. Their scenes together are flighty and vague in a movie otherwise detailed and purposeful.
I’m afraid it’s already safe to say that, as a film, Snowden isn’t going make the contribution to the national conversation its director intended. You’ve got to admire Oliver for taking a swing, though. (To think, here’s a movie that calls out the telecoms for helping the government spy on their customers, and it will soon be available for rental or purchase on demand via all of these companies’ service providers! I wonder if Ed would mind if I just pirated it instead?)
You can love Oliver Stone or you can hate him, but you must admit there’s nobody else out there even trying to pull this kind of thing off anymore.