Snowden, while not the unmitigated disaster Alexander was, doesn’t quite qualify as a return to form.
Oliver Stone hasn’t made a great film since JFK, which was arguably his last watchable one as well. Snowden, while not the unmitigated disaster Alexander was, doesn’t quite qualify as a return to form. That would imply Stone ever abandoned his intrinsic style to begin with, when in fact only his method has been dulled of late. But in telling the sprawling tale of exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Stone reconnects with his most enduring preoccupation, the propagation of American myth.
Ever the frenetic polemicist, Stone seems strangely unconcerned with trying to change any hearts or minds with this picture. If viewers enter the auditorium thinking Snowden a callous traitor, few will walk out after the credits wanting to shake his hand. At times, Stone seems to want to humanize a figure so shrouded in controversy, and he wants you to know that Snowden is a patriot. He wants you to see how much it pained Snowden to have his chance at being in Special Forces cut down by an injury. He wants you to see Snowden debate politics with his girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) and decry the liberal media. He wants you to know that, beneath the monolithic IQ, Snowden is just a guy who loves his country and wants to do right by it, no matter the toll it takes on his personal happiness.
While the film largely succeeds in making its leading man feel relatable, flawed and likable, it functions far better as modern mythmaking. The film’s structure of flashbacks intercut with a truncated adaptation of Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour (with Melissa Leo as the filmmaker) fits in well with the usual awards-bait biopic canon. But this is Oliver Stone; he doesn’t exactly do realism. Stone forges American myth on celluloid, transmogrifying facts and warping them into an elevated brand of fiction emotionally identifiable as more honest than actual reality.
Purely from a screenwriting perspective, Snowden’s got more shared DNA with Batman Begins or Spider-Man 2 than it does Michael Mann’s The Insider. In an early interview scene, Snowden mentions his love of Joseph Campbell and Stone’s film captures that meta sense of purpose quite well. Snowden’s aptitude for computer systems and data analysis borders on a superpower. He has an innate dedication to protecting those around him, one that ultimately causes him severe problems with his primary love interest. His mentor, Corbin (a pitch perfect Rhys Ifans), starts out as a loving father figure, a spook who represents his country in corporeal parent form, not unlike Judi Dench’s work as M in the Craig-era Bond films. Until, of course, he becomes the villain of the piece.
This strange narrative progression is enhanced by an interesting stylistic choice. The film begins rather earnestly, almost a parody of straightforward hot-topic filmmaking. Seriously, some of the first act feels like a late-period Clint Eastwood picture. But as Snowden learns more and more about what this country he loves really does behind the scenes, Stone’s more recognizable tics begin to intrude on this wholesome imagery. The mixed media mayhem visually shatters Snowden’s shining image of America into so many multi-formatted shards, with cinematographic whiplash that would make the ghost of Tony Scott’s head spin. By the time the last shred of Snowden’s loyalty to Corbin and all he represents is tested, Ifans’ face is blown up on a wall sized screen like a fucking supervillain. Stone leaves “realism” in the dust, settling for a kind of extrareal maximalism that tells the story better than docudrama ever could.
One of Stone’s other strengths is the ability to assemble a stellar cast, even in smaller, thankless roles, and letting them shine, even for brief but crucial moments. Everyone from Nicolas Cage to Timothy Olyphant to Logan Marshall-Green avail themselves nicely along the periphery. Woodley provides perhaps the most enthusiastic performance as “the girlfriend” that any young actress has ever offered up, refusing to be left as a purposeless cypher or a symbol. Hell, even Scott Eastwood ends up in a watchable role, a minor miracle unto itself. But it’s Gordon-Levitt’s show. He delivers the most irritating vocal performance since his curious part in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, but beyond that pervasive burp voice, he’s a quietly compelling presence in every frame, commanding your attention in a subtler manner than many of his peers may have mustered.
In the last 10 or so minutes, Snowden miscalculates the dismount, choosing to lean too heavily into wrapping up the true-story elements with precious screen time that, after two full hours of rather dense storytelling, would have been better relegated to some closing title cards. The film is a lot of things, but before this diversion, it shows itself to be the real modern spy thriller for the millennial set, besting Bourne with its kaleidoscopic take on the surveillance state.
This is a war film where the main combatants are legit nerds forced to choose between the practical application of their unique skills and the murky, moral implications those actions reap. Unlike in Mann’s Blackhat, Stone sees no Kierkegaard-reading muscle men behind the hacker’s clacking keys. He sees a generation inexorably tied to technology being abused on such a high level as to wholesale forfeit their individual freedoms. But instead of baby-boomer handwringing, Stone aims his lens at a shining example of what he sees as this generation’s best. In Snowden, he finds a man willing to sacrifice the considerable comfort of his own personal freedom to give the rest of his countrymen the choice to enjoy what he no longer can.