Stone’s Throw

Oliver Stone, Snowden, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 134 minutes. Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

FEW DIRECTORS ARE AS POLARIZING as Oliver Stone. The three-time Oscar winner has been characterized as everything from the bravest living American filmmaker to a muddled rent-a-rad, always first in line to stump for the latest lefty cause du jour, who is willing to parody his own predictable attitudes on The Simpsons. Those who defend Stone usually reach for his highlights from the 1980s—Salvador (1986), Platoon (1986), and Wall Street (1987)—or his early screenplays for Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983). While acknowledging the extraordinary cultural penetration of Scarface (as foundational for gangsta rap as Ice-T and N.W.A.) and Wall Street (Gordon Gekko and “greed is good” remain first-stop references for finance run amok), I am not one of those people. I do think, however, that the director’s cuts of J.F.K. (1991) and Nixon (1995), despite some dodgy history, are masterpieces of political intrigue and, in their cinematography and editing, as experimental as mainstream American films are allowed to be without going straight to video.

In the intervening years, during which I praised these films to whomever would listen (often at risk to my critical reputation), I slowly realized that what I loved about them had as much to do with the collagist sensibility of cinematographer Robert Richardson as Stone himself. Analogous Stone efforts from more recent years—World Trade Center (2006) and W. (2008)—made this painfully clear, their generic, workmanlike competence as far from the exploded-view insanity of the two earlier films as David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011) was from his Videodrome (1983). Though they share some clever casting and amusing performances, it’s hard to believe that Nixon and W. were made by the same man.

So it goes with Snowden, the director’s noble but bland attempt to dramatize the story of the biggest leak of national security secrets in American history. It is better than Stone’s political films from the past decade, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is outstanding, but too often it feels like a TV after-school special version of a tremendously significant slice of history, one that, as a film, could have benefited from a touch of the visual and narrative hysteria Stone and Richardson employed in the ’90s.

Part of this is down to the casting of Shailene Woodley as Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s longtime girlfriend, and her character’s prominence in the screenplay. While the real-life Mills appears to be a walking, pole-dancing whimsy machine for whom the phrase “off with the pixies” would be charitable, and there aren’t any problems with Woodley’s acting per se, she looks about fifteen years old in the film, and the quirks of the person she’s portraying make her seem like a spunky Disney starlet who somehow woke up in a somber espionage procedural. It’s as if Demi Lovato were a major character in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

Oliver Stone, Snowden, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 134 minutes. Edward Snowden and Lindsay Mills (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley).

One can see why the screenwriters (Kieran Fitzgerald and Stone) foregrounded the Mills character; the shy, Aspergers-y Snowden, no matter who played him, could not carry the emotional weight required to hold audiences’ hearts and minds for 134 minutes, and she is a necessary foil to illustrate his personality, private life, and internal transformations. But even within the bounds of the film, Snowden’s relationships with his coldly cynical CIA mentor (Rhys Ifans), and a young, brogrammerish NSA hacker (Ben Schnetzer) who initiates Snowden in the dark arts of the unconstitutional surveillance programs he would later expose, calling Snowden “Snow White” and bragging that “Facebook is my bitch,” are just as pivotal, if not moreso.

The film’s other primary shortcoming is not entirely Stone’s fault. Outside of The Matrix (1999), no director has succeeded in making scenes involving computer hacking and internet architecture sexy or even compelling. One gets the sense that Stone is aware of this, trying to avoid lingering on computer screens any longer than necessary, but given the nature and details of the real story, it is nearly impossible to do without these sequences, and they simply do not make for good cinema. There are moments of genuine IT tension, as when Snowden smuggles the thumb drives containing the NSA archive out of his station in Hawaii in a Rubik’s Cube, handing it to the guard to solve as he passes through the backscatter X-ray, but these are more Hitchcock than William Gibson.

Comparisons to Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour, which gave us a fly-on-the-wall view of that room in Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel where Poitras, along with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, met Snowden and received the archive, are inevitable, but here Snowden performs a valuable service. The documentary enumerated Snowden’s political reasons for passing the archive to the press; Stone’s film gives us the credible character arc Citizenfour lacks, showing how a Pauline right-libertarian who thought he knew everything had a personal crisis of conscience, ultimately becoming a whistleblower and, whether he intended to or not, a veritable saint for radicals, anarchists, and cypherpunks.

What is truly radical about the real-life Snowden, and why he rubs so many people the wrong way, is that nowadays we so rarely see the type of Dudley Do-Right decency he exhibited and continues to exhibit under duress while in exile. In an increasingly cynical century, where trust in institutions public and private is at an all-time low, a person of courage and integrity doing the right thing at great risk to himself is regarded as completely unbelievable and smeared as “self-righteous” or “megalomaniacal.” Such accusations, of course, are deflective barbs, meant to protect the utterly compromised moral core of the accusers. It is telling that nearly everything Snowden has said since he revealed himself has been true, while nearly everything the government, telecoms, and internet companies have said in his wake has been false. Director of Intelligence James Clapper, he of the “not wittingly” under-oath lie in congressional session, committed felony perjury while testifying before the House, which calls for a prison sentence, but nothing was done. As Snowden rots in Russia, Clapper is kicking back in his barcalounger, sipping hot toddies as his jowls dangle and droop ever farther from his face, moral rot oozing from his pores.

Oliver Stone, Snowden, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 134 minutes. Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto).

The latest iteration of official untruths was issued on September 15, a three-page executive summary of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on Snowden, conveniently timed to dovetail with the theatrical release of Stone’s film. The summary attempted to establish a pattern of Snowden’s dishonesty by telling a bunch of demonstrably false lies. It was soon swiftly demolished, point by point, by Barton Gellman, the Washington Post reporter who was the only journalist other than the Hong Kong Three to receive the archive directly from Snowden.

Finally, the nuanced view of Snowden’s humanity and motivations that Stone’s film offers (along with applied common sense) should help dispel the notion that the whistleblower is a Russian spy. Yes, the optics of his exile in Moscow are terrible, but he is only there because the US State Department revoked his passport as he was en route to Latin America, and Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer, recognized a Cold War–style opportunity to embarrass his American rivals. Real traitors do what they do in hiding, and they do it long-term, most often for money. Aldrich Ames (CIA) and Robert Hanssen (FBI) both sold secrets to the Soviets for years, entirely for personal gain. They never went to the press. Even ideological traitors like Kim Philby and the rest of the Cambridge Five only became known to the public after they were caught. The idea that a libertarian hacker who wanted to abolish Social Security and loved his country so much he tried to join US Army Special Forces to fight in the Iraq war, which he fervently believed in at the time, would somehow cozy up to Putin’s authoritarian, post-Soviet Russia is absurd on its face. He does not fit the ideological profile, and he did not need the money; for a kid in his twenties, he was being very well remunerated by the US taxpayer.

Currently, there is a movement afoot to compel President Obama to pardon Snowden before he leaves office. I support this, as should anyone who believes in the foundational principles of this country. The oath Snowden took when he was first employed by the CIA said, “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” That is exactly what he did. Join the call to bring him home, regardless of what you think of Oliver Stone.

Snowden is now playing in theaters everywhere.