By not being able to decide whether it's a political thriller, an investigative drama or a straight up biopic, its indecision leads to an end product which reeks of missed potential by way of playing it too safe.
It would be a fair comment to make that recently, Oliver Stone’s name doesn’t carry the same weight as it used to in the film making realm. Previously helming searingly political and controversial projects such as JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon and Natural Born Killers, his reputation as a filmmaker has somewhat taken a nosedive. In the last seven years, his only other two theatrical releases have been the lackluster Wall Street sequel and the horribly misjudged drug cartel thriller Savages. However, when news broke out that he was going to direct a feature on Edward Snowden, a highly divisive figure in U.S. and World politics, it sounded like he was going back to his roots as a challenging and innovative filmmaker.
The set up of his biopic centers around the days where Snowden and reporters Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) meet together in a cooped up Hong Kong hotel room and prepare to leak the information that Snowden had on the surveillance, among other things, that the U.S. security agencies had been conducting beyond the public’s knowledge. Through that lens, it flashes back to key points in Snowden’s career working for the FBI, NSA and as a private contracter.
While it is not wholly revolutionary and groundbreaking, it is a perfectly adequate set up that allows for us to jump around Snowden’s life without it being too choppy and sequential, which proves to be quite a shrewd choice for Stone. However, the major issue that Stone faces is how to make a drama where the real life story is fascinating, but lacks the theatrical elements that the likes of JFK and Born on the Fourth of July have. This is where the film’s biggest flaw rears its ugly head. For those who are interested in the whirlwind that was created by the leaks by Snowden, you’ll find that oddly, while the film poses some of the burning, debate invoking questions, they rarely attack them with the same ferocity of his previous works. This is something that the documentary Citizenfour did surprisingly well. Despite it being a documentary, the way it was put together felt more cohesive and pressing than this effort.
It’s brazenly evident that a lot of his previous features had the goal of inciting public interest and inquiry into the subjects that his films address. Even with his fictional works such as Natural Born Killers, it was evident that its satirical edge was as razor sharp as his politics. With that in mind, Snowden rarely reaches that kind of boldness. As a whole, the picture that it paints of both Snowden, his counterparts and the US government in general is far too clean. Despite the highly controversial subject matter, there’s hardly any nuance or grey area explored when it comes to Snowden’s actions. Whereas JFK was bold enough to explore many different, often taboo, conspiracies and ideas, it never outright came out with a conclusion which the audience should accept as fact. The brilliance of JFK is that it incites conversation, debate, argues the many facets of a landmark event in US history. Snowden in that sense is essentially JFK’s spiritual successor. However, whilst the former allowed it’s viewers to come to their own conclusions, Stone already has his opinion set and imprinted in the film’s DNA; this is a shame because, whether or not you agree, both sides of the coin are not fairly delved into.
The theatrical cut of JFK alone stood at an epic 189 minutes. The extended running time allowed for much more ‘grey’ matter to be explored and theorized, allowing for much more nuance than we get here. Despite being at a fairly meaty 134 minutes, it does little more than scratch the surface of what is central to the issues of national security, snooping and surveillance among other things. You just wish, as the film winds down to an inevitable close, that Stone took more time to allow the film and its subject matter to breathe and weigh on the audience before they come to their own conclusions.
However, that isn’t to say that Snowden doesn’t have any positives. Its biggest weapon is the cast that Stone has managed to patch together. It is stuffed to the brim with great actors and actresses, ranging from seasoned veterans to younger-up-and-comers. Alongside the ones already mentioned, the cast also features the likes of Rhys Ifans, Nicholas Cage, Shailine Woodley, Timothy Oliphant and Scott Eastwood, who are all on excellent form. Rhys Ifans especially as a fictional role, chews up nearly all the scenes he’s in. This is all headed up, of course, by the work of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His portrayal of Edward Snowden is absolutely brilliant. Nailing the voice (seriously, watch an interview after you see the movie) and his shy, introverted demeanor, the film relies heavily on his ability to make you believe in his portrayal of Snowden and this is up there with some of his finest work.
In his attempt to bring the subject matter to a mainstream audience, Stone has somewhat lost his ability to challenge them. While, of course, it maybe incites a curiosity into the details of the leaks, it does not evoke the same emotional response that the likes of his previous efforts have. It boasts some flashy camera work, quick cuts and fast technobabble explanations intercut with a pressing electronic score (competently handled by Chris Armstrong). However, it does little to mask the fact that within Snowden, Stone had the opportunity to find his feet again in the sub-genre that made him the renowned, recognizable director he has become.
Snowden (2016) directed by Oliver Stone is distributed in the UK by Vertigo Films. Certificate 15.