Review: Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ is a return to form for Hollywood’s master of agit-prop

At first glance, there is little about Snowden that would seem to distinguish it from some of this year”s other “I”m not sure there”s a movie in that true story” based-on-a-true-story movies like Sully and Deepwater Horizon, especially in the wake of the Wikileaks film The Fifth Estate or the exceptional documentary Citizenfour.

But Snowden has a secret weapon, and it”s one that I wasn”t expecting: a fully-engaged and on-his-game Oliver Stone.

And when Oliver Stone is on his game and fully engaged, there are few filmmakers who are more interesting or provocative. I have been a fan of his work for most of the time I have been a film fan, even before I knew fully who he was. I was drawn to films he had written, and when he made the jump to directing full-time with the back-to-back accomplishment of Salvador and Platoon, it was exhilarating. Watching him go on his run of his best work from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s was thrilling, and it has been discouraging watching him struggle to maintain some sense of identity in a film culture that has shifted so radically around him.

What always made Stone at his best feel so urgently important was his passion and his ability to communicate fairly cerebral material on an emotional level. He”s a smart guy, but it is the depth of feeling in his movies and in his writing that really makes him matter. Smart plus hugely emotional is a pretty terrific combination for a filmmaker, and those are the qualities that make Snowden work. The screenplay by Kieran Fitzgerald and Stone is adapted from two books, Luke Harding”s The Snowden Files and Anatoly Kucherena”s The Time Of The Octopus. Harding”s work also inspired The Fifth Estate, but this time, the material works as a movie. The framework of Stone”s film involves the moment when Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) gathered in a hotel in Hong Kong to meet with Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and coordinate the shooting of a documentary by Poitras with the publication of news stories by Greenwald and MacAskill. It”s a very simple, elegant way of then bouncing back through the Snowden story as he makes his gradual evolution from the young man who joined the CIA to the troubled adult who made the decision to leak stolen military papers to the press.

It works because Stone uses every sequence to carefully chart Snowden”s growth, and because Gordon-Levitt does such a good job of playing each of those steps along the way. He leans a bit on his Snowden voice here, just as he did with Philippe Petit's oh-so-twee Frenchness in The Walk, but Gordon-Levitt has a natural intelligence and curiosity that makes him a good fit for the role. Shailene Woodley plays Lindsay Mills, Snowden”s girlfriend, and it”s a tough role. For all of his strengths as a filmmaker, Stone”s never been particularly good at writing women, so the moments where he gets things right are of particular note. Lindsay is as far left politically as Snowden is right when they meet, and she certainly challenges his ideas about the way the world works. It”s hard to tune out the real world when it overlaps as much as it does with the casting of Woodley, who has been such an active and engaged participant in the election cycle going on right now. Woodley in real life and Woodley playing Lindsay Mills both strike me as archetypical young people who are exploring their own place in the system, full of the optimism and the surety that is so much a part of youth. The older I get, the more I realize that the one thing I am positive about is that I do not know as much as I once believed I do. When you”re young, passion can carry you and turn opinion into fact in a way it has to if you”re going to literally try to change the world. You have to believe deeply, and Stone understands that it is the collision of these two passionate young people, both so sure about the world, that really drives Snowden as a film.

Does that mean that”s what drove Snowden as a man? I don”t know, and if I”m concerned about the real Snowden, then I would watch the documentary where he speaks for himself. As a film, Snowden is more about Stone making the case for why Snowden”s story and his actions matter, and what they mean to us as a larger society. Stone is at his best when he has the right person to hold onto when telling a story, and if he doesn”t have the right person, then by god, he”ll make them right. He does to Snowden what he”s done to subjects like Ron Kovic, Jim Garrison, and no less than Richard Milhouse Nixon, bending the human into the metaphor, the center of a film that reaches for some larger point. For Stone, it”s clear that he sees Snowden as the canary in the coal mine, the sign that something large and terrible is not just coming, but already here, unseen and doing harm. Snowden finds himself  drawn to several mentors in the first half of the film, played by Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage, and his own natural ability motors him to a fairly rapid rise within the Intelligence community. At one point, he gets a chance to work as a field agent with an older experienced guy, and he learns quickly that he can”t justify the ethics of dealing with someone face to face and using strongarm tactics. He”s about the data, the bigger picture, and he moves into the NSA instead. This is where he really flourished, and he was given greater and greater access, giving him a bigger picture of just what kind of reach the NSA actually had. Stone wants to capture that moment of recoil, the line that Snowden finally crossed that triggered him to do what he did, and understanding that moment is really the key to how you feel about what Snowden did.

Privacy in the modern age is a totally new thing. What it is, how we protect it, how we value it, how it is sold and bought… privacy may be one of the most fundamental things we need to discuss and understand, and I don”t think we”re doing a good job of it at all. To be honest, the more I read, the more I realize how complex and hard to handle it is as an idea, and Stone”s movie works to personalize the ideas. That”s the only way we can really start to internalize what we”re facing and the dangers that exist for each and every one of us.

There”s a moment where Edward is trying to carefully prompt his girlfriend to be more careful about her computer, and she tells him that she”s not worried because she has nothing to hide. That”s not the point, though. You don”t have to have anything to hide to deserve privacy. We are complicated animals, and part of the social contract is that we behave one way when we”re all colliding in public spaces and that we are allowed to behave a different, freer way in our own private spaces. I believe it is essential to our successful ongoing functionality as people that we have that kind of privacy. Snowden”s actions were inherently political, and in a world where borders and nationality inspire the sort of rabid passions that have ignited European and American politics this year, you cannot do what he did without it creating real-world ripples that can be hotly debated. But what I think is heroic about Snowden is the way he sacrificed his own potential freedoms in order to call attention to a terrifying truth about what we”ve already given up without even realizing we”d done it. Stone”s movie is not “fair and balanced” because that”s not the way fiction works. He”s made a movie from a very specific point of view, and I really like his restrained, confident work with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and the score by Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters. It felt like there was a stretch of his career when the experimental shifts in aspect ratio, film stock, and palette was the entire point, at the expense of specific storytelling. Here, Stone seems very sure about why he”s making this film, telling this story, and the end result is something that should please adults who want their entertainment to provoke.

But, Oliver… that Rubik”s Cube scene? 100% pure William Goldman”s Hollywood Horseshit to the highest degree. Puh-leeeeeease.

Snowden is in theaters tomorrow.