Directed by Oliver Stone
Opens September 16
I don’t generally subscribe to Quentin Tarantino’s late-career belief system about the perils of directors getting too old for their gigs; for every Rob Reiner who loses his touch as easily as you might misplace your favorite pen, there’s a Steven Spielberg who seems to miss nary a step as he cruises into his seventies. But I admit that it occurred to me during Snowden that maybe Oliver Stone has gotten old. I mean, there’s no maybe about it: He’s been directing politically inclined, mostly major-studio movies for thirty years at this point. But there’s something flaccid and by-the-numbers about his latest—a button-pusher that doesn’t muster the energy to push enough buttons.
The movie joins Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) exchanging spy-speak codes (“What time does the restaurant open?”) in 2013 Hong Kong to set up a meeting with Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), director of the Snowden doc Citizenfour. A hoary flashback structure covers the decade preceding, as Snowden bounces from the US Army to the CIA to NSA contracting work, which eventually put him in the position to blow the whistle on the organization’s vast spying program.
Gordon-Levitt excels at playing up Snowden’s dorkiness, with his low, IT-dude speaking voice, dropping references to Star Wars, Ayn Rand, and computers in his CIA interview like any number of young nerds would. His early conservative idealism and search for moral clarity must look familiar to the Oliver Stone who served in Vietnam and voted for Nixon in ’68, hoping he would end the war, and roots of empathy set in long before the actions that would make Snowden infamous. Snowden meets a leftier, artsier girl in Washington, and Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) becomes his companion for a tumultuous long-term romance. Gordon-Levitt and Woodley are affecting together, rooting Snowden’s story in human emotion, even if the script by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald doesn’t give them much of interest to say to each other.
In one argument between Snowden and Mills, the camera floats back and forth between them, emphasizing distance even when they could be sharing the frame. It’s one of Stone’s occasional forays into arresting visuals—surprisingly sparse for a movie shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, who gets few changes to show off his propensity for creating bleary, colorful, intense images within a digital toolbox. As Snowden grows more paranoid (which is to say, informed about US antiterrorism efforts), the ol’ fast-cutting, canted-angle, news-footage-montage Stone returns to action, but in fits and starts, without a sustained tempo. Past Stone movies jittered across techniques; this one is left to concentrate on the occasional big-idea image, like the wall-size screen on which Snowden’s more imposing made-up mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) projects himself for a late-movie conversation.
Snowden also has a friendlier made-up mentor played by Nicolas Cage, in the kind of smaller supporting performance he should seek out more often. But his character, like so many in a narrative spanning so many years, must drop away, only popping back up for a meaningless final non-scene. “The kid did it,” he says approvingly of the leak Snowden never discussed with him or, indeed, knew about when he was in a position to discuss things with him. Yep, the kid did it, and Stone clearly considers him more patriot than traitor. But the enormity of his act never really lands on screen. Stone’s evocations of digital-era paranoia feel worn-out; when a character notes that many Americans actually care more about security than liberty, it’s both a salient point and a diagnosis of why this movie doesn’t feel galvanizing. It goes soft without deepening Gordon-Levitt’s fine, conflicted performance.
Stone has shown signs of softening before; he made a movie called World Trade Center that focused primarily on heroism and survival, after all. But this less fiery brand of history-chronicling took the mellower-than-expected Bush biopic W. in surprising directions; that movie isn’t as elaborate or feverish as his 90s output, but has a welcome sense of both intimacy and immediacy. It was the Wall Street sequel, recasting Gordon Gekko as a redeemable man who just wants to reconnect with his daughter, that felt troublingly weak, and his pulpy Savages was certainly a less nasty piece of work than the similarly non-political U-Turn. Now it’s to the point where Snowden feels at times like an Oliver Stone cover act—it’s the semi-compelling but toothless movie that some people saw in the underrated W.
Maybe Stone should have switched gigs with fellow aging auteur and history buff Clint Eastwood. Stone could have infused Eastwood’s Sully with some welcome nervous ambiguity, playing up the elements that Eastwood lets drop when faced with the opportunity to validate his hero. And maybe Eastwood could have lent Snowden the quiet reflection it so often lacks. Stone’s brand of bombast may have fallen out of fashion, especially within the studio system, but the director of JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon should be able to find a suitable outlet for his passion. Snowden‘s biggest surprise is that it turns out not to be it.