In this day and age, Oliver Stone’s best (in a long time, anyway) is not enough. That has to be said right away, because as well made as, “Snowden” is, the movie has all the traits of a product made for an age where consumerism and hero worship passes for activism. Humanistic and intimate in approach yet ankle-deep when it comes to dealing with issues of surveillance, patriotism, and civil rights, the movie at best is the kind of project one props up to signal to other folks that you’re erudite and up-to-date on the news. Well, assuming you haven’t already peered through the news articles, broadcasts and leaks this movie tells you about through its entire running time.
But like I said, this is easily Oliver Stone’s best directorial effort in years, following a period where the guy reaches hard but fails to connect (“Alexander”, “W”, “Savages” et. all). The movie finds familiar thematic territory of a patriot learning the truth through the real-life story of Edward Snowden, a contractor for the NSA who after years of service stole and leaked information about the massive security and surveillance programs kickstarted by the Patriot Act and continued under U.S. Presidents George Walker Bush and Barack Hussein Obama. Place Joseph-Gordon Levitt as the titular subject and an assortment of actors from Shaliene Woodley as his girlfriend Lindsay Millis to Nicholas Cage as disgrunted mentor Hank Forrester, amongst others, and you have a mix for a potent dramatization of a real-life struggle of duty, patriotism and morals. A shame, then, that the movie stops short of giving Edward a Christ-like glow even in moments where he does the dirty work while giving every other person (even Glenn Greenwald and Laura Portias, played by Zachary Quinto and Melissa Leo, respectively) nothing to do in this story other than be cheerleaders and/or eventual enemies.
Yes, fine, the movie is called, “Snowden”, so of course the man is going to the main focus, but the guy is in the spotlight in the first place because his actions exposed a distressing betrayal of the values the United States of America was supposed to be founded on, and the movie only scratches the surface in dealing with all of that. As the titular character is introduced, he is shown to be a somewhat staunch patriot. He tries (and fails) to get into the Army due to a debilitating injury, and then turns his eye towards working for the CIA. In one scene, he is shown citing his patriotism and favorite works of art (books of Joseph Campbell, “Star Wars” and the writing of Ayn Rand) as reasons for why he should work for them. On the nose, sure (as all Oliver Stone movies are to varying degrees), but it shows an interesting facet of Edward Snowden: a man who thinks of himself as one of the best, going to great lengths to prove it. The movie does a good job of showing the man’s evolution, if not in personality, then in morality, with his love for his country and politics clashing with the lengths he has to go to excel at his job…but that’s all the movie focuses on. Sure, the movie TELLS the viewer the implications and consequences of the system Snowden worked within, but its undercut as the movie engages in one scene after another where Snowden goes through moral/physical compromise on the job, while showing through flashback even more explanations of said compromises and how they relate to civilization in scenes with Laura Portias, Gleen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill (latter played by Tom Wilkinson) in a glitzy Hong Kong hotel.
And its especially undercut in scenes where Edward and Lindsay Millis are portrayed together. Shaliene Woodley shows a bit of range as Lindsay, but only as a compliment to Snowden’s story. Being the loved one of a guy who would eventually be hailed and vilified in equal measure by multiple people is an interesting story in itself, and there is one introductory sequence of their first date, where their political differences are eventually shown during an anti-George Walker Bush protest, that suggests a multilayered story of the couple as they come to grips with the truth. Sadly, that is eventually tossed aside in favor of scenes where they argue, have sex, argue, break up, get back again, have a crucial sequence where Snowden is affected by epilepsy and has to make a big decision about his health (only to have the movie tell us through dialogue that he walked back on it), one understated sequence where she catches up to what he knew all along…and that’s it. Again, yes the movie centers on, “Snowden”, but this especially showcases the weaknesses the movie has in dealing with anything other than a fawning admiration of a man whose actions have been reverberating through political discourse and legislation for years.
The hard truth we have to accept is that it takes more than a hero to change the world. I get that we are waiting for a figurehead to rise out of the shadows and help lead us to a better future, because we’ve been taught to do that for ages. Our history is reshaped into a series of narratives where one person is responsible for the things we take for granted, at the expense of the complexities and other individuals that they stood on the shoulders of. Good biographical movies (the David Fincher-directed, “Zodiac”, the Ava DuVernay-directed, “Selma”.) are ones that dare to examine not just their subjects, but their reverberations, the struggles each person within them goes through, ultimately becoming a rallying cry for social change, a reexamination of the society one lives in, introspection as to why they fight for or against said structure, or all three and then some. “Snowden”, unfortunately, limits such discussion to whether one likes the main character based on how well Joseph-Gordon Levitt plays him. Which, well, he does a damn good job, but a movie of this kind of subject deserves so much more, and we’ve been getting that for 3 years now provided one bothers to look up the stuff this movie (and the pundits for/against Snowden) have been going on about.
This movie is the kind of project destined to be lost in the sea of consumerism/anti-consumerism that people often confuse for, “Wokeness”. It has big ideas, it’s unsubtle (as an Oliver Stone movie is), and it has the backing of celebrities and talented people to broadcast its central point to the masses. But in this day and age, relying on seasoned, Hollywood-taught moviemaking to make a subject, “worth talking about” is like bashing Chuck Tingle for being a self-published author: outdated and out of touch. Polish is worth nothing if all you’re doing is shining an idol, which is what, “Snowden” is at best.
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