Love him or hate him, Oliver Stone is without a doubt one of the most unique voices in the film-making industry. Unapologetic about his sometimes extreme political views, the acclaimed director has been responsible for some of the most celebrated political features in the last quarter century. From his poignant anti-war statements like Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), to his hard edged political thrillers like Wall Street (1987) and JFK (1991), to his sometimes gonzo social commentaries like Natural Born Killers (1994), he is a filmmaker that has something to say and say it loud for all to hear. But, as the filmmaker has aged and gone deeper down the rabbit hole of increasingly fringe conspiratorial beliefs, some have believed that he has lost his focus and with it, the edge that marked most of his earlier work. His George W. Bush biopic W. (2008) was not as incendiary as some of Stone’s most ardent fans would’ve liked. His recount of the events of 9/11 in World Trade Center (2006) were too boring and safe. And of course, his attempt at classic Hollywood epic filmmaking turned into the notorious flop that was Alexander (2004). Suffice to say, Oliver Stone has spent much of the last decade trying to rediscover that same spark that drove much of his early career. It’s not that he doesn’t try; I have yet to see an Oliver Stone movie that I outright hated or found boring (yes, even Alexander). But, Stone is a filmmaker who lives by absorbing new information and keeping up with current events, and that has not always found it’s way into his directorial style. He is both emboldened by his politics and shackled by them as well. What he needs now is something that appeals to his interests but also lends itself very well to his style of film-making.
So, he should feel very lucky that something like the Edward Snowden case fell into his lap. The Snowden incident has all the hallmarks of an Oliver Stone story, with an intelligence insider discovering a huge and illegal government operation at work and finding himself caught up in the middle, leading him to risk his life and career in order to expose the truth and hold powerful people accountable for their actions. Oliver Stone loves these kinds of underdog whistleblower stories, and the fact that this true life event was still fresh in everyone’s minds gave the filmmaker the perfect opportunity to delve back into what he is good at. For those unfamiliar (if there are any of you), Edward Snowden is responsible for the largest and most damaging intelligence leak in U. S. history. In the documents that he released to the press, he exposed evidence of widespread wire-tapping conducted by the government against it’s own citizens, with high-profile communication companies like Verizon, Apple, and many others compliant in the program. It was a huge black eye for the American government, who quickly had to spin the news to make it appear that they were using the intelligence responsibly in the War against Terrorism. Despite whether or not Snowden was heroic for his actions, he did spark a debate on the nature of privacy and government overreach with his actions and it has since become a defining moment in recent world politics. Snowden, today, is still a fugitive from the law, living as a refugee in Russia, but he has gained a following of supporters through all of this, including Stone himself. Now, Oliver Stone has brought Edward Snowden’s story to the big screen, and it should be a movie that fits perfectly within his wheelhouse. But, did Oliver Stone fail to live up to the potential of this story, or did Snowden bring his style back to form in a big way.
Snowden tells it’s story much in the traditional biopic way. We are introduced to Edward (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in his most pivotal moment, holed up in a Hong Kong hotel as he discreetly hands over the stolen documents from the CIA over to a handful of journalists. The journalists in question are Guardian columnists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), along with documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo); people Snowden hand-picked to speak to based on his faith in their level of discretion and commitment. As they wait for approval for their story to go forward, Snowden reflects back on what brought him to this point. We then flash back to his early days as a politically conservative idealist looking for an opportunity to serve his country. After health concerns force him out of the army, Snowden looks for a job in the CIA as an analyst. During his training, he becomes influenced by two veteran teachers, Intelligence director Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) and Agent Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), both of whom see a lot of potential in the bright young man, but steer him in different directions. O’Brien appeals to Ed’s more idealistic leanings, while Forrester appeals to his more cynical side. Both ideals clash as Snowden falls deeper into the world of espionage and surveillance, discovering just how far the American government will go to stay one step ahead of the rest of the world. The stress takes it’s toll on him and he becomes more and more paranoid; something that puts a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). After several back and forth clashes between him and the agency he works for, once he learns of the full breadth of what the Intelligence community is up to, he resolves to throw everything away in order to expose the truth.
A story like this had to find it’s way to Oliver Stone eventually; if not right now, it would’ve later. It has all the hallmarks of a traditional Stone thriller and it practically t-balls the situation for Stone to hit it out of the park. So, is Snowden a return to form for the legendary agitprop director. Well, yes and no; and more emphasis on the latter. Snowden unfortunately misses a lot of opportunities to really deliver a compelling thriller, and yet at the same time, still delivers on some of the things that Stone is exceptional at. I think it’s a movie that perfectly illustrates the unfortunate characteristic of Stone’s latter career; the disconnect between the political and the professional that defines the way that Stone directs. Oliver Stone becomes a very different person whenever he delivers a sermon in his movies, as opposed to when he’s the storyteller. In many ways, these are the best parts of his films; whenever he gets political. And Snowden is no exception. There’s a montage in the middle of the film where Edward Snowden breaks down exactly what the Intelligence community is doing with all it’s new found power and how that is shaping the political dynamics all over the world. The montage is an expertly delivered visual essay that really helps to spell out the full picture of the world that Edward Snowden lives in and it’s by far the most intriguing part of the movie. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the film is generic and unoriginal as a biopic. This is where the division in Stone’s style begins to undermine the movie. He clearly wants to deliver an intriguing political point, but it’s buried within too much conventionality to feel important. Stone’s long history in Hollywood undermines his message here, as his more subdued direction steals the power away from a hot button subject.
But, despite the conventionality of Stone’s direction, it still is fairly competent direction. Not once was I bored watching this movie. I especially find it intriguing how someone so critical of the United States still manages to infuse all his movies with a strong sense of Americana. A lot of waving flags show up in this film. Some parts are actually quite compelling; especially those within the Hotel where Snowden makes his transfer. I would’ve liked to have seen more emphasis put on these crucial moments in the hotel, because it’s the point of the movie where Snowden’s life hangs in the balance the most. Much of the rest of the movie gives perhaps too much focus to his backstory, much of which gets repetitive after a while. Seeing the interaction between journalists and a whistleblower is a story-line that could’ve been mined more and it’s surprising that Stone chooses not too. My thinking is that Oliver Stone probably felt that his subject needed more context, considering that Snowden has come under fire and is pre-judged from pretty much everywhere; in the political world and in the press. That’s why I think he stepped away from his own political ideals and portrayed this story from a more conventional angle. But, even still, it’s a different approach than what he would have done with the story if it were in his heydays. In a movie like JFK, Stone pushed aside the broader picture and conventional things like character insight and narrative flow in order to deliver the story that felt right to him, and that resulted in a film that was unconventional and historically inaccurate but cinematically engaging. I do admire the fact that a more mature Oliver Stone seeks to delve deeper into his characters and their motivations, but it becomes a disadvantage when the film’s narrative has less drive because of it. The Stone-esque moments that he’s become so good at are there, especially near the end; it’s just that the director is less reliant on them as he used to be. And as a result, you have a movie with ambition behind it, but not the propulsion behind it to make the narrative as strong as it could be.
But, Oliver Stone’s still strong direction is one of the movie’s saving graces. Unfortunately it’s undermined by a huge factor that prevents the story from ever taking hold, and that sadly is the character of Edward Snowden himself. Snowden is fundamentally a weak character in the movie. Despite what you think about the man, a person who has affected so much change in the political world over the last couple years should be a compelling individual when portrayed on screen, and sadly, this movie fails to make that happen. Snowden comes across as a boring, stick-in-the-mud boy scout with an unsavory condescending attitude towards anyone who doesn’t see the world his way. I don’t know if this is the fault of Oliver Stone trying to stay true to the character or perhaps being so reverential to his subject, that he makes him obnoxiously perfect. Whatever the case, Snowden is not an appealing character as portrayed in this film. It is kind of reflective of the man himself, who’s been given celebrity status as both a champion of privacy and as a criminal from justice, which he has come to embrace. I try to avoid taking a political stance on most things but, I do see the validity of both arguments against him. I for one am happy that his actions have sparked a debate over the ethical dilemmas associated with the government’s secret wire-tapping of it’s own citizens; something which shouldn’t go un-ignored. But, at the same time, I’m not a fan of Snowden’s cocky self-image that he’s projected ever since then; making himself look like the supreme authority on all intelligence activities conducted by the United States and it’s allies. He knows more than me, surely, but I think there are still plenty of other intelligence experts out there that could school him on a bunch of things too. It’s not surprising that Snowden had involvement in this film’s making, which tells me that he wanted to put his best image forward. But, in doing so, he makes himself appear less interesting and as a result, less sympathetic. Some heroes are worth investing more in when you see their flaws. Oliver Stone makes Snowden too one-dimensionally perfect to feel real.
But, despite the unsavory character at it’s center, I will say that Joseph Gordon-Levitt does deliver a solid performance as Snowden. In particular, he nails Edward Snowden’s accent perfectly. There’s a point late in the movie where we transition between the actor and the real life person and you see just how much work JGL put into getting the speech patterns right. He does much better with the voice than with the physical performance, because you never quite shake the feeling that you’re watching an actor do an imitation throughout the movie, but the actor does deliver for the most part and helps carry the film as a whole. And I’ll say this about Oliver Stone movies; they are always filled with great ensemble casts. Here you have the likes of Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, and even Nicolas Cage all offering strong performances in the film. Albeit, most of them get short shifted, but they do stand out as a whole. In particular, I liked the brief appearance of Justified‘s Timothy Olyphant as a covert CIA agent who gives Snowden a darker window into the world of spy networks. Rhys Ifans also stands out as Director O’Brien, becoming something of the film’s primary antagonist. Despite being the story’s villain, O’Brien shows more shades of character in the movie, being both menacing and appealing at the same time, and it makes him a far more compelling character than Snowden in the overall narrative. The film’s weakest character sadly is Shailene Woodley’s Lindsay, a character who should be the political spark in Snowden’s outlook on life, but instead just turns into a passive tag along on his inevitable road to infamy. Still, it’s the cast that largely holds this film together, even when the characters are not written well enough to deserve the strong performances given to them.
Overall, the movie is neither the long awaited return to form for Oliver Stone that we’ve all been looking for, nor is it a huge step backwards either. It’s just an acceptable political thriller with some minor provocative points to make. I would’ve loved to have seen more risks taken with this material, because it’s a debate worth having and Oliver Stone is the kind of troublemaker that would’ve offered up an engaging statement on the subject. Unfortunately, by handling his key subject with too much care, he kind of undermines the impact that this story could have had. Snowden is still a controversial figure, and this movie wins him no sympathy points at all; with his supporters, his detractors, or with people on the fence like me. If you want more sympathy on your side, don’t be afraid to show a little more character. Otherwise you just look like an arrogant jerk. That’s ultimately the failure of this film; a weak main hero. If you want to see a more compelling account of the Snowden case, watch the Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour (2014), the making of which is dramatized in Stone’s movie. Laura Poitras’ “you are there” documentation is immediate and compelling, and offers up a much better portrait of Edward Snowden as we witness him in his most vulnerable moment. There are some moments in history that just come across better in a documentary, and this is one of them. Still, fans of Oliver Stone probably won’t be too disappointed. It’s still a competently made thriller, showing that the director hasn’t fully lost his touch. It’s just that he’s got to take more risks and strike a better balance between his propaganda and his narrative. It’s good to see you compelled to believe in something again Mr. Stone. Just don’t be afraid to make it a little messy and a tad bit insane cinematically, because that was always the appeal of your movies before.