Oliver Stone is one of the few directors whose auteurism is his ideology. While he has hit a few correct notes (mostly in the Adagio for Strings sequences of Platoon) there is very little about his directorial style—no signature montages or lengthy tracking shots—that say “Oliver Stone” the way that his completely misinformed takes on history do. This comes at a cost. Namely, the critic can typically walk into an Oliver Stone movie and know the conclusion before the first credit has even hit the screen. Enter Edward Snowden.
You can probably already guess where this is going, but it is still worth reviewing how Oliver Stone gets there, if, for no other reason, his telling does not run the fastest route. What else would one expect from a man who has spent many moons creating an apologia for a regime that may soon be enslaving large segments of its population? Edward Snowden, as played by Joseph Gordon Leavitt, seems an agreeable enough schlemiel when we first meet him, hobbling his way into the sickcall bed of basic combat training. While this is possibly true in real life (I’ve never met the man), Stone’s unflinching commitment to look at only this “likeable” side of him is part of the problem. But Stone deserves some credit for not over-romanticizing Snowden’s military service as some unscrupulous journalists have done by proposing that he might have broken his legs during a parachuting exercise. His washing-out of military service seems consistent with many actual cases during initial military indoctrination and speak neither good nor ill of one’s character or capability. His preparation probably could have been better, but thank his recruiter for that.
It’s only after Snowden shows up at the CIA compound that the false notes begin to ring. Maybe it’s true that Snowden was disturbed by the possible erosion of civil liberties from the time that he was going through his original CIA-techie indoctrination in Maryland, or his first assignments in Europe, or his first contracting gig in Japan. However, while this might make him more forgivable as a doey-eyed, naïve idealist, it means he also lacks any certifiable qualities which would make him interesting; an honest brown cookie for sure, but sans chocolate chips—I’m gonna pass. There are a few points which are obviously meant to be flattering to the real Snowden, although they don’t make him any more intriguing. He is told by his instructor and mentor (played as a Bourne-esque cliché by Rhys Ifans) that he is too important to be used in the Middle East and is being sent to Europe instead. And his assignments in Europe—such as attempting to collect intelligence by socializing with a banker despite having no training in espionage—just don’t ring true.
For all that, it is worth asking whether the film’s highly questionable narrative really matters. Isn’t art supposed to be art? Well, yes and no, and, in this case, no. Snowden is so overly-invested in its Importance (that i is capitalized on purpose) that the art isn’t easy to distinguish from the accuracy. Or, to put it another way, the movie is basically artless. This is not inevitable. Snowden could have been a compelling character study had it bothered to dig a little deeper into how the issues it raises play out in human lives. At one point, the film’s CIA apparatchiks use the illegal immigrant status of the acquaintance of one of their sources as leverage to curie favors, but since we never meet this acquaintance, there is no real sense of his humanity.
I could go on; the film makes stops at just about every point of Snowden’s career, from Switzerland to Japan to Maryland and Hawaii. But there is not much point. Snowden’s political orientation might change somewhat throughout the film, but he remains essentially the same person. One shouldn’t blame Snowden too much for wanting to represent himself this way. It is what we all want to believe about ourselves. Hence, the litany of politicians who use lines such as “I never left the party; the party left me”. However, one can criticize of Oliver Stone for taking Snowden’s representation of himself so much at face value. And that is what I just did.
I would discuss the film’s technical proficiency, but the best that can be said for it is that Stone’s directing style is not clumsy. He has not made a film with a distinctive style since the early 1990s (and even then with mixed results). Snowden has no distinctive camera work or angles, no hypnotic editing, no carefully arranged mise en scene. This is, if nothing else, a wasted opportunity. The film’s paranoid themes leave ample room for the sort of cinematography that could emulate the vibes of isolation so distinct in the work of Edward Hopper. Instead, there are only two moments which aim at a sort of artfulness; one, when Oliver Stone pushes an extreme close up into a personal computer’s camera eye, as though to say “See, this is where Big Brother is watching from.” (The advice Snowden offers for covering your computer’s camera eye with duct tape when not using it is actually pretty sound.) The other is at the film’s close. (Note: Since I assume most readers are fairly familiar with Snowden’s story, I don’t feel obligated to observe common customs regarding spoilers.) In this scene, Snowden is speaking at a techie conference and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, in a sudden editing cut, transforms into the real Edward Snowden. What this bizarre episode is meant to achieve is perhaps known only to Oliver Stone himself; I assume that it is meant to say “Yes, this is the real story.” However, it ends up underlining the subjectivity rather than the objectivity of fiction. It affirms once again that this is just one version of a story that could be told from multiple perspectives. And this is not just because Edward Snowden isn’t a very good actor. It’s because he is left with the thankless job of playing a fictional version of himself.