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Snowden: Make Oliver Stone Mad Again

The national security cover-up of the century should have lit a fire under Oliver Stone. Instead, it made him complacent.

Before my screening of Snowden began, Oliver Stone appeared on-screen in a well-appointed living room, perched on the edge of a leather sofa. Ah, I thought, here’s an introduction from one of America’s most provocative directors of the last thirty years, a way to prime a film about espionage, information technology, and corporate surveillance Stone holds up a cell phone, and begins to weave a montage of paranoia, “When you make a call, send a text, you’re giving them access.”

As it turned out, Oliver Stone was just pretending to be Oliver Stone—a caricature of the paranoid, they’re-listening-in-right-now director of JFK, Natural Born Killers and Born on the Fourth of July—reminding moviegoers to turn their phones. Stone knows you think he’s a crazy old crank and he’s ready to own it. The problem is that Stone can only conjure up the old outrage (the-whole-system’s-out-of-order!) when he’s pretending. Snowden tells the story of the exact sort of government malfeasance and widespread nefariousness that Stone has been raving about for three decades, but, bizarrely, the film can’t seem to get all that worked up about it. Snowden should be frothing at the mouth. Instead, the best it can work up is a weary sigh. Didn’t this guy used to be angry?

The strangest decision Stone makes is to tell the tale of Edward Snowden completely straight, like a conventional biopic, with traditional framing devices, stem-to-stern resume recitation and a love story that even the film seems to regard as filler. We meet Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in Hong Kong as he meets with Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). He’s preparing to give them all the information about the United States government’s PRISM program, which monitors private communications through telecom and internet providers, from Apple to Verizon to Yahoo. As he tells his story, we flash back throughout his career. The film paints Snowden as a sort of hacking genius, but a patriotic one, zooming up the CIA’s depth chart under the tutelage of a shady mentor (Rhys Ifans) and an eccentric but benevolent code-cracking genius (Nicolas Cage, who needed more to do here). The movie, slowly but still sloppily, tracks Snowden’s trail, from loyal conservative to dismayed freedom fighter to, ultimately, a traitor. His decision to leak the details of the NSA’s PRISM program and subsequent exile to Russia to avoid prosecution for treason. (He recently called for President Obama to pardon him.)

The problem is, I’m not sure Edward Snowden, the person, is nearly as compelling as Edward Snowden, the document leaker. The movie itself doesn’t seem to find him compelling, which is why it saddles him with an endless, relentlessly dull love story with a liberal activist (Shailene Woodley) that takes up more than half the film’s running time. Woodley is saddled with a role familiar to fans of Stone’s films: The Woman Who Alternately Supports Her Heroic Man But Also Gets In His Way But Ends Up Being The Moral Compass But Not Until She Has Cried A Lot. (See also: Sissy Spacek in JFK, Kyra Sedgwick in Born on the Fourth of July, Meg Ryan in The Doors, even Joan Allen in Nixon. To be fair, this role is a trope in far more films than just Stone’s.) Their love story has no real drive or rigor: They’re just sort of together to give Snowden something to do when he’s not at work.  We see them have a series of rote fights—you’re not listening to me, work is hard—then they go on a hike together and…seriously what’s going on here? Even if the two leads had any compelling chemistry (they do their best, but they don’t) why are we spending so much time on a love story isn’t enlightening about Snowden, his girlfriend, or really much of anything? That Stone spends so much time diddling around with this relationship is a sign that he doesn’t think he has as much movie as he needs; it’s padding, and it goes on and on and on. It doesn’t help that Levitt has taken on the flat, emotionless patter of Snowden as his own, which takes his boundless charisma and buries it. His emotional palette runs from “sleepy” to “accountant.”

This is going to sound silly, and maybe even a little retrograde, but you know what Snowden needs? It needs a little more Sully. Edward Snowden, like Chesley Sullenburger, is not an inherently fascinating character; his appeal lies in his dopey normalcy and his brilliant on-the-job performance. If Stone had a better handle on his material, or even had a little more fire in his belly, he could have taken the route that Clint Eastwood took: By showing how regular and unremarkable he was before he was faced with a historic situation, he made his heroism shine that much brighter. Eastwood never plays up Sully, and thus when he does something amazing, it ennobles all of us. We didn’t need to know what Sully was like as a kid, or what his marriage was like: We just needed to know that he was a good person who rose to the occasion when it beckoned. But Stone treats Snowden like a world leader or something, rather than the computer nerd he is.

But that shouldn’t matter, because Stone should be getting so fired up and enraged about the PRISM scandal that he can’t see straight. I mean, come on, man! Oliver Stone has been telling me my entire adult life that the American government is spying on its citizens and engaged in wide-reaching conspiracies meant solely to advance American interests at the expense of the poor and destitute. Stone spent three hours in JFK electrifying his audience with evidence of a conspiracy that probably didn’t happen. But here, with the real deal right in front of him, he spends all his time on a boring love story and hackneyed “espionage” clichés that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tony Scott B-movie thriller? And he frames it all like an old-fashioned biopic, like he’s Richard Attenborough or something? Oliver Stone may have sounded like the perfect person to direct a film about Edward Snowden, but 2016 Oliver Stone isn’t 1993 Oliver Stone, not even close. He’s just playing the part. 

Grade: C 

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site