It’s been a long time since Oliver Stone has made a truly vital film. From 1986 to 1995, whether you liked him or not, every Stone film was a searing vision of historical, sociopolitical agita (some would argue agitprop) captured on film. Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the 4th of July, The Doors, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon made up an extraordinarily prolific decade of often polarizing, but undeniable cinema. Only his 1993 misfire, Heaven and Earth, was dismissable.
Then it was as if the forceful drive that had driven Stone over that period could no longer sustain itself. It’s not that he stopped making good movies–Any Given Sunday, World Trade Center, and W. certainly have their merits, but maybe he was out of “Oliver Stone”stories to tell. Maybe the failure of 2004’s Alexander (arguably, his last effort at going full Stone) took the wind out of him to such a degree that he largely became a “working director”. There were still hints every now and then of the wild man whose movies often felt like celluloid fever dreams (the underrated Savages in particular had some “Crazy Ollie” moments), and his technical capacity had not diminished, but his films largely became more craft than art.
When it was announced last year that Stone would be telling the story of NSA whistle-blower, Edward Snowden’s leaking of confidential government information to the public, I was intrigued. Stone had made multiple forceful comments on the subject of privacy and government overreach in recent years, and “Snowden” seemed like just the sort of project that would light his liberal (some would say “leftist”) wick.
In the nature of full disclosure, I should add that Stone’s “classic era” of filmmaking came along just as I fell in love with movies. His every picture was an event to me. He still holds a secure place among my favorite directors. Reviews of Snowden have been decidedly mixed. This is not new for the auteur. Stone has often split critical opinion in spite of his many career accolades (including three Oscar wins). While many have found Snowden a return to form, a near equal number have greeted the film with a bit of a shrug.
I would say the truth is somewhere in-between, but with favor to the former. Perhaps the largest challenge Stone had with Snowden was making a story so well covered by the media and in the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour–from just two years ago, seem fresh to those that were transfixed by the patriot/traitor argument that has been inescapable since Snowden released the classified data in the summer of 2013. Snowden works hard to separate itself from Citizenfour by depicting the subject’s life over a ten-year period, whereas the documentary focused on the much shorter stretch comprising the beginning of the controversy to right before Snowden’s flight to Russia, where he still resides today. This allows Stone to delve deeper into the person Snowden was before he felt compelled to challenge the surveillance tactic of his country and employer.
Much of it is welcome. The often underrated, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with his passing resemblance and mastery of Snowden’s particular tone and cadence, does a fine and measured job of taking an enigmatic character beneath the surface, showing the emotional toll the affair took on not only him, but his long-suffering girlfriend–well-played by Shailene Woodley. Snowden himself has often been caricatured as either a liberal paragon, or a villain of the highest order. Hie remote, and somewhat chilly, personality probably hasn’t helped in defining his motives or his humanity. Even after Citizenfour, there was still a lot of room to demystify the person behind the scandal.
Snowden begins the film as a libertarian leaning (he even references Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged) conservative, who grows more liberal on the subject of privacy as he begins to question his work for the CIA. Still, like most people, he’s not easy to get a political fix on. Here, he comes off as a man driven by principle, but not any particular orthodoxy.
It will surprise almost no one to reveal that Stone’s take on Snowden is cleanly heroic. What might take some off guard is how low-key the director largely keeps the proceedings. Until a string swelling finale, Snowden is shown as a man in conflict with his loyalty to his government and what he believes to be true and right. Stone has never been known as a subtle director, but he definitely shows new shades here, letting the story tell itself. It’s also one of the quietest films he’s ever made. There’s very little shouting, or speechifying in general. For a director once described by the great critic, Pauline Kael, as a man who “directs as if he has a gun to his head”, his approach in this his 19th film, is positively mature. At times maybe a little too much so. I can’t deny missing the inspired, occasionally lunatic vibe, of peak-period Oliver Stone, but that’s probably unfair. In its own, relatively restrained way, Snowden is indeed the most passionate film Stone has made since the folly of Alexander. This isn’t just a “pro job”. This is clearly a story Stone wanted, perhaps even needed, to tell.
As for Edward Snowden himself, I walked out of the movie asking myself two questions.
First, does Snowden believe what he did was right? That’s the easy one. The answer is a quietly emphatic (if such a thing is possible) “yes”. The cost of divulging government secrets has not been small. The risk to his relationships, his income, and his very security has been damn high. It’s hard to believe a man not driven by righteous belief would put himself in such a position otherwise. It is also a profound irony that Snowden would take refuge under the frigid cover of Putin’s Russia because of what he deemed civil liberties infractions in his home country. The man has all but ended up in Siberia. Remarkably, his girlfriend followed him there and is with him to this day.
Secondly, was what he did actually right? This is a significantly thornier question to answer. Snowden has often been–unfairly, I think–lumped in with Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. A far more careless and morally questionable character, who seems more interested in self-aggrandizement than governmental transparency. On the other hand, there can be little question that Snowden broke the law. It can also be argued he did so because the government he served was (is?) violating the constitutional rights of its citizens. As well, there is the genuine argument over whether his actions put American citizens at greater risk. Edward Snowden practically defines the tension of security vs. privacy. Again, was he right? That appears to be up to history. It may be many years before a consensus is formed around his actions. I am starting to think that time may be on his side. Something I would not have said in the summer of 2013.
Snowden, the film, may not be a grand achievement. Neither is it a small one though. It smartly and sensitively reflects one of the most complex issues and figures of our time. Both of which are still evolving and may always be. Does it answer the question of whether Oliver Stone is back? I’m not sure. But for the first time in a very long time, I am eager to see what he does next.
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