It’s not a problem at all to say right up front that Snowden is Oliver Stone’s best movie in years. Of course the caveat that goes along with that statement is that his resume since 2000 includes films like Alexander, World Trade Center, W. and Savages, a frustrating filmography that found the director basically working as a shadow of his former self. By tackling the story of Edward Snowden, the conservative, buttoned-up CIA analyst and self-proclaimed patriot who blew the whistle on the U.S. government’s massive surveillance of its own citizens, Stone places himself solidly back in the kind of territory he mined so brilliantly in some of his very best films: JFK, Born on the Fourth of July and Nixon.
So why does Snowden ultimately turn out to be a letdown? As I said above, it’s Stone’s best work in years: assured, professional filmmaking that makes its case clearly and presents its subject in great detail. But this is the kind of material that almost demands a return to the kaleidoscopic, paranoid, overwhelming informational assault of movies like JFK and Natural Born Killers, films that felt like waking fever dreams. Yet with the stakes and circumstances presented within the film, Snowden never musters up the outrage, nuttiness or sheer shock of discovery that made Stone such a provocative and important filmmaker in his heyday.
Instead, Snowden plays largely like a point-by-point biopic. We meet the young Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) just as he gets drummed out of the U.S. Army due to an injury, and the movie follows dutifully along through each stage of his life as he goes to work for the NSA. He meets Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), with whom he shares an immediate attraction despite their very different opinions on the Iraq War and then-president George W. Bush. The bulk of the rest of the movie is a series of rinse-and-repeat sequences: Edward gets an offer to move to a new job at a new location, he and Lindsay argue over it because he can’t tell her what he’s doing or she just started doing something new in their present location, and she winds up going with him anyway. These scenes, along with those of Snowden interacting with his NSA colleagues, all feel maddeningly bland and similar. The one exception is an encounter in a workshop full of old computers with Nicolas Cage, an aging security expert who has been put out to pasture by the feds; a little more Cage craziness might have helped.
There is also little drama or tension in the framing story, which chronicles Snowden’s now famous (well, sort of; most Americans don’t even know who these people are) meeting in a Hong Kong hotel room with filmmaker Laura Poitras (an effectively still Melissa Leo) and abrasive journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto, reminding me why I used to like but have stopped reading the hectoring Greenwald in real life), who are making the much better Citizenfour documentary about Edward. Nor is there much in the scenes of Snowden with his NSA mentor, O’Brien (Rhys Ifans, playing a fictional amalgam). The problem with all this is that while Stone unconditionally believes that Snowden was right in what he did – and frankly, I tend to think the same – he doesn’t give the other side even a chance to make its case, thus depriving the movie of real conflict. And he never bears down and envelops Snowden, the man or the movie, in the kind of anxiety that worked so well in those earlier projects. Stone wants to present as much of the truth as he can in the most sober way possible, but it robs the movie of any electricity it might have had.
Gordon-Levitt is, I suppose, perfect as Edward, right down to the soft voice and eerily calm demeanor, but the real-life man is so dull on the surface that it’s difficult to turn him into a compelling screen character, let alone a hero. Woodley works hard to make Lindsay interesting, but her little quirks can’t overcome the fact that the part is just another variation on the Dutiful Girlfriend. The endless interactions between Edward and Lindsay drag the movie to a standstill; there’s a reason why Sissy Spacek only had a few moments of screen time as Kevin Costner’s wife in JFK – the personal life stuff is so conventional that it can dampen the rest of the picture.
Snowden could have used more of the JFK-era Stone; that movie made you believe in the conspiracy theories, as outlandish as they might have seemed, or at least made you believe that the government was not telling the whole truth. It also made you understand why this was important, and it accomplished this through a truly staggering assault on the senses that recreated both the fear and panic of that dreadful moment in 1963 and the sensation of seeing the curtain pulled back to reveal the malevolence lurking underneath our hallowed institutions. Maybe we’re all resigned to it now – even Stone – but Snowden never captures that same sense of outrage or existential dread in knowing that the government may be looking at you right now (even as you read this, through the camera on your laptop – which Snowden covers on his own, by the way).
Can you imagine what the Stone of 25 years ago might have done with that? There’s one scene in Snowden when Edward is speaking with O’Brien and the latter’s face fills a gigantic screen, dwarfing our hero. It’s a surreal moment that seems to come out of a different film, a more fiery one, the kind that Stone used to make about these kinds of topics. While Stone was accused of playing fast and loose with history in movies like JFK and Nixon, he sticks so closely to the record with Snowden that he ends up making a boring movie, starring a boring protagonist, about one of the most dangerous and un-American activities our government has ever participated in. How did that happen?
Snowden is in theaters today (September 16).