TIFF Review: Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ Has Little New Or Interesting To Say About Its Subject

Writing about the Edward Snowden case, Glenn Greenwald has made some compelling arguments about the nature of mass surveillance programs. His main one is that just the existence of such programs gives people a low-level anxiety, causes us to self-censor, and in essence, makes us all demonstrably less “free,” even without being specifically targeted or having done anything wrong. That the mere idea that you could have your dirty laundry aired in public by someone who doesn’t like you makes you more compliant in general, and in all sorts of situations, less willing to stand out or speak up, even if you don’t think you have any enemies, let alone oppose the government.

I realize that Oliver Stone is, shall we say, less than nuanced, but I was still expecting some form of that argument when, during Snowden, Edward Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley, delivers the oft-repeated chestnut of an apathetic public in the PRISM age: “Let them spy, I don’t have anything to hide.”

“You don’t have anything to hide?” Snowden (Joseph Gordon Levitt) demands, incredulously, like a seasoned prosecutor who has run through this line of question many times in his mind.

There it was. Right there on a tee, a perfect set up for movie-Snowden to tell us Why This Matters. To give us one compelling answer to the blazing question of this whole story: Why is this mass surveillance thing so bad? Surely, for all his faults, not even Oliver Stone, who must’ve put this scene together this way for a reason, could whiff on this one, right?

And that’s when, rather than offer any insightful counter argument about surveillance, movie-Snowden accuses his girlfriend of cheating. Then they have a big fight over how he hasn’t been around, she’s bored, he’s mad because he pays for everything, and blah blah blah. I can’t tell if Stone is missing the point himself or if he simply has no other speed than reality show relationship fight. Why is this scene even here other than to provide generic “drama”?

The final straw for Edward Snowden, the thing that caused him to knowingly turn himself into an indefinite dissident persona non-grata, according to the Oliver Stone version of the story, comes when his boss (Rhys Ifans) starts spying on his girlfriend. Snowden’s boss does the creepy old “you wouldn’t want to quit and then not be able to afford the nice RED DRESS your girlfriend was wearing YESTERDAY AT THE PARK with her BEST FRIEND SHEILA, would you?” This while talking to him from a giant Big Brother screen that curiously hadn’t appeared until that moment (I’m guessing it was SYMBOLISM). This is a film that asks, How could the American people ever hope to understand the perniciousness of mass surveillance except through hokey movie tropes?

I didn’t expect a documentary (if you care about this issue, please, see Citizen Four or Zero Days instead of this) or a dearth of creative license, but is it too much to ask for the storyteller to at least understand the big picture issues of the story he’s telling? The only thing Oliver Stone seems capable of communicating about Edward Snowden is that “questioning authority is the greatest form of patriotism.” And he hammers it, over and over again. Mainly by depicting Edward Snowden as a nerdy, conservative, genuinely patriotic guy who’s horrified by what he finds when he starts working for the U.S. security apparatus. As Woodley’s character says (on their first date, no less) “You don’t have to agree with your politicians to be patriotic.”

Maybe if you pit that against someone calling Snowden treasonous, it’s relevant, sorta — but it’s not new, or interesting, or insightful. It’s scrubbed free of specifics to the point that it’s a trifle, an empty slogan. Edward Snowden was a whistleblower because he cared! If you’re from some other planet and you’ve never been exposed to this idea, maybe Snowden will come as a revelation.

Inveterate sensationalist that he is, Stone also only seems capable of depicting BIGGEST and MOST. And so Snowden’s patriotism shows up in the form of stress fractures during Army basic training. (He literally broke his legs to serve his country!) “Son, you keep training and those bones are going to turn to powder,” says his doctor. To communicate his intelligence? Rubik’s Cube expert! His facility with computers? He aces an hours-long exam in 45 minutes!

I’m actually fine with the over-the-top stuff, because I expect that from an Oliver Stone movie. Where Snowden really fails is in the “horrified by what he finds” part, which is scattershot and vague. When Snowden goes to do CIA field work with Timothy Olyphant, he helps get a Pakistani banker drunk at a strip club, then balks when asked to let the guy drive home so they can nab him for drunk driving and turn him into a snitch. It’s a little grimy, sure, but how much of a Boy Scout do we really need to believe Edward Snowden is in order to respect what he did? Snowden goes to a house party where he and his colleagues agonize over collateral damage from the drone strikes they call in. This is what Snowden’s horrified about? Drone strikes and drunk driving? I thought this movie was about surveillance.

When you just lump surveillance into a list of larger gripes against the U.S. government (…and let’s not even get started on healthcare or our horrific treatment of Native Americans!), no matter how accurate those gripes are, you start to come off like a crackpot. If your critique is streamlined and specific, it’s hard to dismiss. If it’s broad and sweeping, like Snowden, it seems partisan, and risks falling into the same old liberals says/conservatives says dichotomy that doesn’t even really apply anymore. Isn’t that the whole point? Are Boomers just going to keep re-litigating the counter-culture revolution? They’re like beavers trying to build a dam on top of a skyscraper. We’re beavers! We build dams! It’s what we do!

Here Snowden meets his girlfriend online, on a site called “geek-meet.com” (proving once again Oliver Stone’s unmatched eye for millennial trends). They bond over Ghost in the Shell, and on their first date, she shows up in a leather jacket with a camera around her neck. Which we all know is movie shorthand for “this hot chick is clearly cool and marriage material and not some vacuous cheerleader hot chick she may have played in another movie.”

In real life, Snowden’s girlfriend is an acrobat, dancer, and performance artist — that’s pretty interesting! Yet in Snowden, she comes off as your usual Hollywood cliché of girlfriend material, a hot chick with an artsy side. It’s frustrating to watch a filmmaker who only trusts his audience to understand big issues if delivered in the form of pat aphorism (questioning authority is patriotism!) or shorthand storytelling (opposites attract!). Moreover, isn’t it hypocritical to criticize the government for cutting corners in intelligence gathering when you’re cutting so many corners narratively?

Snowden isn’t a good movie and it isn’t bad movie. It’s just a movie-movie. (It isn’t as dumb as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which isn’t saying much.) And with an issue as important as this, we need more than that. We need more than slick visual metaphors and smug maxims.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.