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Oliver Stone’s Vague American Hero

Fact, fiction, and archetypes in the disappointing ‘Snowden’

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Late in Oliver Stone’s Snowden, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets a surprising bit of news: His girlfriend isn’t cheating. Great! — but wait. The surprise isn’t that Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) has been faithful. The surprise is that Snowden is hearing about his girlfriend’s fidelity, spilled as casually as if it were a bit of brunch gossip, from a senior official at the CIA — one of Snowden’s bosses, effectively. The people Snowden works for have been spying on millions of Americans, to say nothing of the legions of non-Americans, for years. Snowden knows this. He understands its consequences: No one could possibly feel exempt from the gaze of U.S. intelligence, not even the intelligence. And yet there’s nothing quite like drinking intel straight from the tap, is there? Nothing quite like getting confirmation from the most powerful cybersecurity agency in the world that you, one of its loyal shepherds, are under its watch, too.

That’s not to say the news about Lindsay isn’t welcome relief. The Snowden of Stone’s reckoning is a guy with a lot on his mind. So far as we know, seeing Lindsay get chatted up by a tall, handsomely goateed photographer at her birthday party is stressful enough to trigger one of Snowden’s epileptic fits — well, that and a somewhat nauseating debate between Snowden and his colleagues over whether they would survive modern-day Nuremberg trials. In case you’re keeping track at home, that’s simultaneously: epilepsy, an unhappy girlfriend, and government abuses of power. If nothing else, Stone, who cowrote the script, is good for laying it on thick.

That’s not a categorical flaw — and in fact, psychologically, the mounting sense of personal pressures that push Snowden to finally blow the whistle work wonders for Stone’s movie. They’re also more or less the only things about Snowden that work. By the time Snowden gets definitive proof that he, too, is being spied on by the government, he’s already seething with doubt about his access to the secrets of billions of people worldwide. He’s already covering his and Lindsay’s computer cameras with Band-Aids, having seen firsthand that they can be activated remotely by intelligence agencies. He’s already taken to avoiding certain subjects of conversation at home, knowing fully well that anyone might be listening. But by day, it’s his job to do the listening: It’s his job to activate those cameras. He fears this power because, in a way, it’s his — except when it’s being used against him, as is the case when he realizes his bosses have been spying on him and his girlfriend.

That’s the inner conflict at the heart of the movie. If, going into it, you didn’t already know Snowden was an Oliver Stone picture, it wouldn’t take long for the film to get you up to speed. All of the deliberately spastic cuts, the bombastic minor-key lamentations of the music, the vibrant tinges of red, white, and blue in the images and, yes, the tendency to be more than a little on the nose — all of this would orient you. Like most Stone movies, Snowden is an exercise in sensual and informational excess. It has little respect for the traditions of biographical filmmaking, openly mixing embellishment with pure fact, documentary truth with symbolic fabrication. Every biopic does this, of course. But Oliver Stone movies tend to revel in their ability to get away with it — to the extent that they can.

Does Snowden get away with it? Well, does the fact that the fictional mentor who betrays Snowden’s trust is named O’Brian, after the stooge who sells Winston Smith out to the Thought Police in Orwell’s 1984, do anything for you? What about Snowden sneaking government secrets out of a high-security compound in a readily symbolic Rubik’s Cube? Or the fact that this scene — the defining act of Snowden’s life — ends with him walking into an aura of bright white light? Too much? Too easy? That depends on you.

Oliver Stone is a filmmaker full of visual sleights of hand, the best of which tell us who his characters are, the worst of which simply remind us who the director is. As for this movie, it’s full of mirrors and reflections that have a curious way of making Snowden’s world look like it’s constantly folding in on itself, constantly buckling under the pressure of being observed and scrutinized from inside and out. Stone keeps bringing us close to Snowden’s face, close to his eyes, but often sticks to his blind spots, as if we’re here to peer into Snowden from some dangerously close but unseen periphery.

It’s all a little spooky and, sure, effective, and it helps that Gordon-Levitt’s performance is an admirable impersonation of the real man, confident but a little shy, with a deepened voice and a less flighty attitude than seems to be the actor’s natural lane. It’s a good approximation of the Snowden we saw in Citizenfour, which is the Snowden that anchors this movie: Its dramatic substance reproduces the tense encounters among Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), and Citizenfour director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in a Hong Kong hotel room in the days leading up to and including the publication of the Pulitzer-winning series of articles first published by The Guardian in 2013.

The rest is Hollywood. At a postscreening Q&A this week, Stone said he’d visited Snowden nine times in Moscow over the course of making the movie; a recent New York Times Magazine article made much of Stone’s struggles to get various Snowden factions on board. However much we hear about the years of obsessive research Stone pours into his projects, though, it’s feeling, and not historical veracity, that drives his films. 1991’s JFK is inconclusive, or downright wrong, as a study of who killed John F. Kennedy. But as a heated, paranoic study of the death of American idealism after Vietnam, it still sings. And so do others in his canon, like Platoon and Wall Street — politically earnest movies that somehow seem better for being thoroughly trapped in their own eras, not worse.

Maybe it’s Stone’s love of archetypes that saves him. Or does him in. Snowden is cast as the archetypal Stone Hero, a confident political idealist by blood who, after serving as an ally of the state, becomes a paranoid agent of change. Snowden and Stone have that gradual transformation in common. Stone was raised by a Russia-fearing Eisenhower Republican on New York’s Upper East Side but drawn slowly left by his experience in Vietnam. The Snowden of his film is a similar man fighting on a new, practically invisible battlefield. Snowden starts out a post-9/11 Bush Republican. But like Stone — and like Born on the Fourth of July’s soldier turned antiwar-activist Ron Kovic — it’s serving his country, seeing power up close, that changes his mind.

That broad trajectory is the most satisfying — and limiting — thing about the movie. For a time, Stone was one of our masters of political melodrama — like an agitprop Douglas Sirk, making muscular, expressionistic investigations of his own post-Vietnam disillusionment with power. Even on other subjects, such as football in Any Given Sunday, he kept coming back to Davids vs. Goliaths, individuals versus the systems that were meant to take care of them. (It’s a wonder he hasn’t made a movie about the health care system.) The ferocious sense of narrative, and not only ideas, that defined Stone in the ’90s is still here in Snowden, but only barely, in briefly inspired fits of design. Check out the beauteous colors shining into Snowden’s dull Hong Kong hotel room at night, for example, the abstracted red, white, and blue signalling his distant, but not dead, idealism.

It’s a nice image. It’s not enough to really tell us who Snowden is, in a fundamental way: It’s not enough to convey who he was before he walked into the Army recruiting office and decided to enlist, or explain the experiences that make him say, with an unfeeling lack of hesitation, that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world when he’s asked multiple times by CIA polygraphers. It does little to give us a sense of how this 150-pound hacker became who he was — little sense of him as a hacker, even.

Maybe, though, that’s the point — maybe Stone’s sense is that nationalist idealists are blank slates. And maybe that’s true! But in this case, you wonder. You would think, from Stone’s earlier forays into the death of American political innocence, that there were no idealists left in this country. So: whence Edward Snowden? Must our modern political heroes be so symbolic that, as people with rich individual histories, they become vague?

The movie ends on an odd high note: a pair of interviews that play the role of the big speech. They have all the rhetorical assertiveness of the long, rousing speech by Kevin Costner at the end of JFK, or Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday. But they have none of the impact. Who wants to feel good? Isn’t the government still probably spying on me? Stone confuses our need for moral clarity with a hunger for a Great Man, and mistakenly postures a skillful but soulless impersonation of that man as its own justification for believing he’s Great. That could mean multiple things — that Stone is out of touch, that the subject is too close to his heart for him to truly scrutinize, that he doesn’t have much insight into our current moment. But what it mostly adds up to is a strange, disappointing movie.