No matter the many criticisms levied at Snowden, Oliver Stone’s recent hagiography of CIA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, you can’t say it’s not the work of an auteur. For better or worse, Snowden is an Oliver Stone joint through-and-through.
The Easter eggs are numerous and unmistakable — the one-word titular title, the ripped-from-the-headlines premise, the idealistic protagonist whose principles are put to the test by an evil father figure, the shallow engagement with historical complexity, the casual sexism. Stone’s calculus for what artistic license does and doesn’t allow for in a biopic remains as curious as ever. Snowden is a movie in which the particulars of XKEYSCORE are only glancingly explained, and yet there’s time for a scene that depicts Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), teaching a pole-dancing class. Like I said, total Oliver Stone joint.
The only thing missing from Snowden when I caught a press screening last week was that intangible feeling that we were seeing something important. The excitement for a new Oliver Stone film, that sense of witnessing a cultural event, simply was not there. It seemed strange, though at this point, it probably shouldn’t be.
While Stone remains an A-list director who works with top talent, the period of Stone’s career when his films rocked the culture has long passed. As a cinephile who started caring about movies when Stone was at his peak in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I’m not sure if I’ve fully wrapped my head around the fact that Oliver Stone doesn’t matter anymore. Now, you actually have to explain to filmgoers in their teens and twenties that there was a brief window of time when Stone’s reach and influence seemed to overshadow even Scorsese and Spielberg. To anyone younger than I am, it might be equally hard to fathom that Stone did matter once.
I swear it’s true – from 1986’s Platoon to 1994’s Natural Born Killers, Stone was arguably the most revered, argued-about, and famous director in the world. Platoon winning Best Picture in 1987 signaled the beginning of his glory years, during which 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July and 1991’s JFK also garnered Best Picture noms. Stone himself won two Best Director awards, for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, adding to an Oscar tally that began in 1978 when he won Best Adapted Screenplay for Midnight Express. Stone’s films prompted national debates and inspired classic Seinfeld parodies. Not everyone liked him, but if you cared about movies, you had to reckon with Stone’s work sooner or later.
And then … Oliver Stone didn’t go away, exactly, but he was marginalized. Critically, it became unfashionable to champion his work. He kept making movies, but they didn’t dominate pop culture the way his old films did. Oliver Stone faded.