Oliver Stone’s Snowden is not Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, even if at first it’s hard to tell them apart. If you’ve seen Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary about her and Glenn Greenwald’s clandestine interview with the game-changing whistleblower, the déjà vu is inescapable.
Within minutes of Stone’s biopic, we’re back in the Hong Kong hotel room, and Stone’s actors — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden, Melissa Leo’s Poitras and Zachary Quinto’s younger, handsomer but solidly well-cast Greenwald — say all the correct lines and exhibit the same movements and facial tics as their real-life counterparts. They’ve clearly absorbed Poitras’ doc in their skins and brains like sense memory, and the movie starts to feel like Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot Psycho remake.
But we don’t stay there. What for Poitras was her muckraking raison d’être is Stone’s narrative framing device. Snowden is told mostly in flashbacks, punctuated by occasional revisits to the hotel. If Citizenfour was a work of unvarnished journalism, Snowden is an opinionated, high-minded American chronicle of disillusionment and redemption. It’s very much a Movie movie, progressing with the murky rhythms of a spy thriller and the moral gravitas of dystopian science fiction.
It’s the kind of picture where shifty villains defend constitutional violations with pithy trailer-lines like “secrecy is security, and security is victory,” while clutching the corpses of animals they’ve just shot. The line is spoken by Rhys Ifans’ Corbin O’Brian, Snowden’s CIA mentor-turned-convenient-bogeyman, who appears later in the film in a grotesquely giant close-up on a wall-sized screen in the NSA’s gleaming operations center in Hawaii, issuing malicious threats to Snowden like Big Brother incarnate.
Unlike the documented Hong Kong rendezvous, it’s hard to imagine a moment like this happening. But as Stone has proven over a checkered career of sledgehammer provocations, he’s not one for subtlety, even in a story, like this one, that begs for it. That said, some of his visual extravagances work better than others: His visualization of the information Cloud morphs into a HAL-9000-like iris and, then, a human eye, linking technological advances with voyeurism. And what initially seems a gratuitous sex scene between Snowden and long-suffering girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) becomes a turning point in his hero’s justified paranoia, when Snowden realizes, in a headlong visual rush, that his formerly benign laptop camera is pointed right at them, potentially capturing their coitus for the world to ogle.
Indulgences aside, Snowden functions well as crackling edutainment. You’ll learn a great deal about Snowden the person, despite the director’s calculated spin. It’s hard to imagine this bespectacled IT nerd as a Green Beret volunteer, scaling walls in military fatigues, but there he is, in the film’s earliest flashbacks, struggling to keep up with a hectoring drill sergeant. It’s even more difficult to imagine Snowden as a conservative. Strolling through an antiwar demonstration in D.C. circa 2004, he refuses to join Lindsay in signing a petition, equating dissent with insulting our troops and blaming the “liberal media” for the increased backlash over a criminal war.
Later, when he applies for intelligence positions in the government, he lists as influences Star Wars, Thoreau and Ayn Rand, the cultural ingredients for a bona fide South Park Conservative. This lends credibility to his future betrayal of the spying apparatus he helped propagate; this torch-carrier of the renegade left came to his decision not out of anti-government ideology but after an eight-year accumulation of illegality became too egregious to accept.
Stone and co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald also offer imagined but plausible access into their protagonist’s relationship with Lindsay, fraught by Snowden’s rootless, workaholic lifestyle, his guilt-gnawed inner battle and his stress-induced epileptic seizures. In short, we come to understand far more about the man behind the blown whistle than we ever could have, or should have, from Citizenfour. Snowden is the broad-based human complement to Poitras’s narrow-focused reportage.
Before seeing Snowden, I expected half the population — the half that believes Snowden to be a traitor — to hate it on principle. This contempt will mostly manifest in the sweeping gestures of the film’s final act. Stone, a dyed-in-the-wool civil libertarian, makes no overtures of balance. Martyred in Moscow, Snowden speaks about the justification for his actions, and the anticipated result of them, over a score swelling with pride, a moment that conjures nothing less grandiose than the climactic monologue from The American President.
This is too much, of course, but Stone’s affection for Snowden is infectious. Such a movie could not have been made about Julian Assange, who is by all accounts a flippant prick, or even about Chelsea Manning, a figure defined less by sound judgment and moral clarity than by tragic, bullied confusion. Played by Gordon-Levitt with intelligence, skepticism and humanity, Snowden is uniquely suited for this story of a rebel’s vindication, and it’s arguably Stone’s most uplifting film. This auteur of perpetual protest has, in a year of ferociously negative politics, discovered something approaching hope.
SNOWDEN. Director: Oliver Stone; Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage; Distributor: Open Road; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at most area theaters