Oliver Stone’s Snowden is an abysmal movie in almost all the ways by which we usually judge cinema. The acting is mannered; the actors are smirking; the music presumes an emotional grandeur the storytelling has not earned; the visuals include the now-standard-issue technological eye candy by which we are “transported” inside the high-speed circuitry of the National Security Agency’s computers and data mining—a.k.a., C.G.I. blather. The movie also swaggers, oblivious to the fact that it is dull as dirt.
Alfred Hitchcock famously said the director is God; we are pretty sure Hitchcock was kidding. Oliver Stone, on the other hand, may actually believe it. How else do you convince yourself, never mind the people who gave you $50-odd million in financing, that the world needs your take on a story about which the definitive film has already been made? The Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” of 2014, directed by Laura Poitras, is a movie with all the drama of an international thriller, because it was an international thriller, shot in real time, containing real urgency. With “Snowden” we get an anemic imitation along with Stone’s precious affectations, tweaks of history and moral superiority. “Citizenfour” was about Snowden. “Snowden” is more about Stone.
Don’t get me wrong: Edward Snowden is a hero. Administration officials, the military and political conservatives generally seem inclined to despise him. But that may be because he presents a moral conundrum they cannot explain away. Why would a young man with a thriving career, a healthy salary and a sun-dappled life in Hawaii give it all up, if not because of a moral imperative he had to confront? Even the most rabid Snowden hater has not tried to argue he was a career spy or some kind of sleeper agent. Fame? He has gotten some, but he is also languishing in Russia. No, Snowden’s motivation is the one thing about the case that is pretty simple: He was watching his fellow citizens’ privacy made extinct by a shadow government he was helping to create. He was abetting a crime. He blew an overdue whistle.
The problem with “Snowden” is that Stone, well known for cultivating large-scale conspiracy theories (“JFK”), does not bother to make much of an intellectual argument on Snowden’s behalf, despite painting him as a scratchily bearded messiah. He doesn’t feel he has to. He presumes we are on his side, as he tells the story of a young man who considered himself a patriot—he enlisted in the Army Reserve, worked at the C.I.A., held points of view that were decidedly on the right—and gradually came to see the world as something else.
A coming-of-age story? What could be more tedious? Never mind unworthy of the subject.
As Poitras well knew, the story of the N.S.A.’s mass collection of information from the laptops and cellphones of private citizens is a knotty one, and there is no point trying to make it simple. But for all Stone’s posturing as a filmmaking maverick, “Snowden” relies on every manner of movie convention and emotional shortcut. The film’s Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is an eager-seeming, vaguely cocky 20-something, not the cerebral Snowden we’ve become familiar with, mostly through the interview Poitras did with him in a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013 and that went global just as the first stories by The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) were being published.
The romance between Snowden and Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who now resides with him in Russia, takes up an inordinate amount of the movie’s time—but of course, if what you want to do is build a conventional movie around an unconventional subject, you need brick, mortar and cliché. During a scene set amid an anti-war protest outside the Bush-era White House, Eddie says, “I just don’t really like bashing my country.” To which the more liberal Lindsay says, “It’s my country, too…and right now, it’s got blood on its hands.” Snowden’s ultimately enlightened conscience, as per Stone, is the product of a good woman. All that’s missing is their reunion in Casablanca.
In what appears to be an effort to co-opt the factual narrative, Stone omits all the really intriguing prelude to Poitras and Greenwald’s meeting with Snowden in that Hong Kong hotel; Snowden’s overtures to Greenwald, who balked at the N.S.A. technician’s insistence on encrypted correspondence (because he did not know how to make it work); Snowden’s reaching out to Poitras, whose film work (“My Country, My Country,” “The Oath”) indicated a kindred spirit. Poitras declined to cooperate with Stone on the film.
The Snowden story, like the story told at Nuremberg, is about what a citizen owes his country when that country’s actions are criminal. And what he owes his conscience. And his soul. Stone’s filmmaking is so off-putting one is likely to forget that the issues he is dressing up with cloak-and-dagger adornments and rom-com simplicities are some of the more tormenting issues of our time. It is sad, at the end of “Snowden,” to see the real-life Edward Snowden appear—sad because it is a cheap trick to play on Gordon-Levitt, who has been creating a character for two hours and 14 minutes. But also sad because we thought better of Snowden than to get mixed up with a mess like this.