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To tell or not to tell? Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) | © Open Road Films
To tell or not to tell? Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) | © Open Road Films
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Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' Lowballs The Chilling Reality Of Mass Surveillance

Picture of Graham Fuller
Film Editor
Updated: 17 October 2016
Oliver Stone’s Snowden, a conspiracy thriller-cum-domestic romance that morphs finally into a docudrama bathed in Spielbergian warmth, centers on Edward Snowden’s exposure of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance project.

Adapted by Kieran Fitzgerald from two books on Snowden, who is currently exiled in Russia, Oliver Stone’s movie wants for the gravitas and irony that Aaron Sorkin’s writing brought to The Social Network and Steve Jobs, this decade’s analogous heavyweight dramas about flawed geek heroes.

Gamely impersonated by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Snowden shares the agony of most Stone protagonists. The movie is light years away, though, from the macho dirges that established his reputation as a liberal scold. The grunt ambience of Stone’s war films, which made him heir to Samuel Fuller, has given way to the XBox patina of the digitally visualized drone strikes Snowden sees one of his NSA co-workers call down on Middle Eastern enemies. In remote warfare, as in government spying, Edward is a virgin who has to be blooded. Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), his sexually dominant dancer-photographer girlfriend, takes care of her part.

What Snowden lacks in muscular storytelling, it makes up for in style. Reminiscent of Stone’s JFK in its visual strategy – pristine scenic images jostle with grainy interior shots and monochrome freeze frames, faces reflect luminous green and blue coding glyphs – it delivers its urgent polemic kaleidoscopically. Screens, cameras, and frames within frames proliferate. Successively trapping Snowden in situations that leave him unsure which way to turn, the film’s world is a hall of mirrors as disorienting as Laura Poitras’s Snowden documentary Citizenfour was clarifying.

A Snowden biopic was never likely to rejuvenate the visceral cinema of Stone’s 1986-91 peak. Though the whistleblower conforms to the ideal of a 21st-century freedom-fighter, he is, like Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, antithetical to the quasi-mythical rogues and warriors of Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, and Born on the Fourth of July.

An early shot of Snowden and his army reserve platoon trotting and chanting on a Washington, D.C. street in 2004 invokes nostalgia not only for Stone’s best film but the machismo germane to all his movies except the relentlessly Dionysian The Doors. When the nervous Special Forces candidate breaks his legs after falling out of his bunk, it becomes clear that Stone will have to mine for Snowden’s masculinity both underground – in his psyche – and in cyberspace.

Growing in courage as he realizes the extent of NSA spying, the hitherto right-leaning patriot blows his whistle so loudly and self-sacrificingly that – as a news montage inscribes it – he earns President Obama’s disdain and prompts Donald Trump to demand his execution. Stone’s jab at the Republican candidate is hardly unexpected.

Rhys Ifans as Snowden's CIA mentor | © Open Road Films
Rhys Ifans as Snowden’s CIA mentor | © Open Road Films

The film’s “present” comprises Snowden’s 2013 meetings with Poitras (Melissa Leo) and The Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) in a Hong Kong hotel room. Snowden tells his story while the sympathetic Poitras films him. Stone re-creates this encounter matter-of-factly; he was never likely to re-trigger the paranoia and dread generated by Poitras’ chilling Oscar-winner.

The second act catalogues Snowden’s false starts and career rethinks – the fruit of his dawning conscience. He recalls his army days and his shuttling between gigs with the CIA and the NSA that take him to Switzerland, Japan, back to Maryland, and onto Hawaii, where he’s deployed to sabotage IP addresses in China and North Korea. When the Director of National Security James Clapper tells Congress that the NSA does not collect data on American citizens, Snowden walks out of the Hawaii facility with a USB thumb drive onto which he has downloaded thousands of classified documents, proving Clapper lied.

Along the way, he’s mentored by a ghoulish Pentagon recruiter (Rhys Ifans), befriends a hearty boffin (Nicolas Cage) – the CIA’s equivalent of Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing – and has a mutually supportive if turbulent relationship with Lindsay. A louche CIA colleague (Timothy Olyphant) inveigles Snowden into blackmailing a shady Pakistani businessman. A glib NSA pal (Ben Schnetzer) shocks his “bro” Edward with the knowledge that he can spy on practically anyone.

Did Stone ask the actors, Gordon-Levitt aside, to overact, in order to emphasize Snowden’s reasonableness? Woodley overcooks her sexy girlfriend role. Lindsay’s smiles are dazzling, but nothing suggests she has an interesting inner life. Stone can’t do domesticity. Cage’s scenes yell, ‘Here’s Nic Cage!’ Carrying the entire burden of the otherwise faceless military-industrial complex, Ifans plays his spook with increasingly comic incredulity. Even his Big Brother scene, when his blown-up face looms menacingly over Snowden during a video conference, is played for laughs.

Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) comforts Snowden | © Open Road Films

The 700 American audiences who attended the “Snowden Live” screenings three days before the film opened nationally saw the man himself – beamed in from Moscow – loom large on the screen as he spoke with interviewer Matt Zoller Seitz, Stone, Gordon-Levitt, and Woodley, tiny figures on stage. He was every bit the serene, modest champion of the right to privacy. Replicating his video chat with the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger at the end of the movie, the event pulled everyone watching into the hall of mirrors, though, in fact, we’ve all been stumbling around in it for years.