Edward Snowden makes perfect sense as an Oliver Stone protagonist. Like JFK’s dogged district attorney Jim Garrison or Born on the Fourth of July’s veteran turned war protestor Ron Kovic, Snowden is a man whose pursuit of what he sees as unambiguous and truthful duty to country causes him to endure outer skepticism and scorn, and inner destabilizing life changes. Like Savages, The Doors, Platoon, and two Wall Streets, it’s about a young person drawn into a career with exciting upsides, but with downsides readily apparent as well. Like Nixon and W. and World Trade Center and Alexander it’s about a man driven by and ultimately fated to be crushed under the weight of history and expectation. But unlike those previous movies, Snowden finds Stone at his most restrained. He views the proceedings from a remove, not digging into the psychology as deeply, or using filmmaking flash as ostentatiously. It’s a movie that sees the spreading web of surveillance with a mournful paranoia. Look at what our government can do and has done, it says, lauding its hero while wondering if what he did will actually matter in the long run.
To best make the case for their protagonist as a misunderstood hero, Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald (The Homesman) begin by showing us Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) at the point of his earliest civic duty. In 2004 he’s discharged from boot camp after a painful leg injury, after which his drive to serve his country leads him to transfer to the C.I.A. He’s a smart, unassumingly confident computer nerd who defends George W. Bush, gently teases his liberal girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) about her beliefs, and admits to a fondness for Ayn Rand. (It’s not hard to read this material as Stone inviting conservatives into the story with a “See? He’s one of you?”) The movie then follows Snowden’s gradual disillusionment with the intelligence community as he moves from one contract job to the next, finding increasingly shadier tactics used in gathering and deploying data scooped up from a global dragnet. Each new revelation gives him waves of anxiety that seem to pass, but slowly and steadily accrues in the back of his mind until he has to act.
The movie becomes a portrait of a man whose work anxiety grows so potent his only recourse is to exorcise it by releasing it into the world. There’s something of the terror I remember feeling then to this telling now. (If his revelations about the wide-ranging surveillance tactics at the fingertips of our country (and others) didn’t have you slap a piece of tape over your webcam, I don’t know what would.) Because we know what Snowden did – and what we don’t know remains Top Secret and therefore a ripe target for Stone’s mythologizing speculation – there’s little surprise to the film. It’s even structured as flashbacks around scenes of documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) filming Snowden’s secret whistleblower interview with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), footage which would become the Academy Award-winning film Citizenfour. This creates a strangely sedate sense of dutiful reenactment, making the characters mere pawns in historical inevitability. Gone is the volatile conspiratorial frenzy of Stone’s heated political films or the schlocky gusto of his genre fare. Here there’s an almost serene sense of data flowing, history written in bits and clicks, coded to produce this outcome.
This calm befits what is Stone’s fastest turnaround for contemplation on a flashpoint in modern American history, beating WTC (another of his eerie calm films) by two years. Anthony Dod Mantle (frequent Danny Boyle collaborator) makes images of clean simplicity, cut with occasional smeary doubling or reflections through layers of screens and glass. Snowden is trapped in a digital world made tangible, with information glowing and streaming, collected and collated. His personal dramas – simple fights with his girlfriend, a late-breaking health issue – are halfhearted, well-acted but beside the point. The most vivid crisis points are when his work life intrudes with unwelcome force on his home life. He can’t take his medication to prevent seizures because it slows his response time. A woozy snap zoom interrupts a heated love scene as he catches the unblinking cam eye of an open laptop, the extreme close up of the tiny black circle showing their nakedness reflected in it. There are standard thriller elements of people avoiding surveillance, befitting a news story that’s already informed dozens of action movies from Jason Bourne to Captain America 2 and Furious 7. Its tension remains at a constant low-boil, mystery dulled by unavoidable outcomes.
It all adds up to a movie that’s vital and turgid, obvious but with flickers of surprise and life. The known facts of the story are bulked up with lesser-known or fictionalized incidents, inconvenient truths and convenient fictions pumped through with enjoyable personalities. Around even corner is a likable recognizable face bringing fine energy opposite their scene partners. Part of the fun is wondering who’ll show up next: Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Keith Stanfield, Logan Marshall-Green, Ben Schnetzer. Each is used by Stone to keep interest and curiosity flowing, never quite sure whether each new co-worker is a sympathetic ear or a reason to raise Snowden’s disillusionment. They create a pattern to the movie’s pulsing compelling/dull, scary/stale info-dumps (the best of which is an abstract swirling animation of social media chatter and secret metadata flowing into a black hole that slowly forms an eye, the sort of image so hypnotizing it doesn’t matter how blatant the symbolism), playing key roles in the process and personifications of various view points.
In the end it’s another Stone movie of weary patriotism. It’s about the burden of being a good American, about loving the country so much it’s worth wishing it were better. Clinging stubbornly to ideals is difficult, especially when calling into question the ratio of security to liberty from within the government can make you a target for, at best, criticism and stress, and at worst jail or exile. Stone makes Snowden a figure unambiguously good, leaking information as a last-ditch effort to improve what he sees as a slippery slope to tyranny. After the deed is done he literally has Snowden walk out of the dark data center into gleaming white sunlight. And yet the unsettled aftermath – stuck in Russia, communicating in warnings from a robotic screen – creates uncertainty, ending on a slightly more ambiguous note. He receives applause and attention, yes, but isolation and confusion, too. He thought it was important we hear what was happening. Now we know. Now what?