I was actually leaning towards a more positive grade on Snowden before the ending. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives an interview over Skype defending his actions to an awed crowd, it’s an actually decent moment. And then he slowly morphs into the real Edward Snowden as a pretentious Peter Gabriel song plays (I’ll get to that). In this moment, I saw into Oliver Stone’s soul, and I did not like what I saw. It’s not pretty watching a once-great director fall this far, especially when he’s attempting to cover arguably the most important story of the past ten years. And yet, this moment is the perfect synecdoche of the film itself: while the heart may be in the right place, it’s got its head so far up its own ass that you can’t appreciate any of that heart.
The film jumps between the present of 2013, when Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) tells reporter Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo, playing the woman who won an Oscar for the actual film about the case) about the NSA’s actions- they have foregone all sense of the Fourth Amendment to catch “terrorists” and begun spying on American citizens-and 2004-2012, when über-patriot Ed joins the CIA, and eventually the NSA, to serve his country before realizing the extent of their overreach. Why is the story told like this? Well, because all biopics use this set-up, of course! Especially if said biopic is made by an aging 80s liberal like Stone.
I think we’ve reached the point where we need to block, or at least heavily monitor, all new films from the 80s liberal filmmaker. Using Aaron Sorkin as an example, the 80s liberal filmmaker would use his medium to preach seemingly profound messages to an unsuspecting public. These themes include “Greed is bad!” or “Watch out for Big Brother!” Everything comes back to the military-industrial complex, and the heroes are either soft-spoken patriots (Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July) or quick talking egotists (every Sorkin hero). And they share a deep mistrust-and often deep lack of knowledge-of the millennial generation, while simultaneously forgetting the lessons of the 60s “free” generation. However, while Sorkin continues to update and evolve in his style, Oliver Stone still thinks it’s the 80s, where a great man can change the system, and everything seems new-no matter how played out his tropes actually are. While there’s moments that allude to the greatness of July and Platoon, the rest speaks to Stone’s recent trends towards the preachy and ridiculous, like Savages, or JFK (people love this film, but all of his bad traits start here-go ahead and check it out. Go ahead, I’ll wait).
Each moment in the film feels false, from the very first moment when the screen is plastered with “This film is a dramatization of real events.” From there, it just becomes more and more hammer-meets-nail, as everything is spelled out for its audience, like an over-the-top representation of the web, a blatantly evil government official (played by Rhys Ifans) who appears on giant wall screens in order to resemble Big Brother, and a huge CGI map to explain the web to people. It’s all very simplistic in its descriptions, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the real Snowden used a lot of incomprehensible big words in his documentary. However, when you have to simplify Snowden’s motivations to the government official literally telling him he watches his girlfriend have sex via her computer monitor, it becomes too much to bear.
Speaking of the girlfriend, let’s talk about how Stone portrays women. The worst aspect of the 80s liberal is his view of women: to him, all women are shrill wives, complete whores, or shrews standing in the way of greatness. Snowden has all three, and sometimes characters are a combination. This is the case with the film’s interpretation of Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s girlfriend who in real life is a true Renaissance woman, but here is portrayed as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who likes to take pictures, teaches pole dancing, is totally down-to-earth, and loves to f*ck, except when Ed gets stressed with his job, in which case she just yells at him a lot because “She doesn’t get greatness, you guys.” To be fair, though, she does put up with a lot, considering Oliver Stone thinks that the two of them got in a heated debate over the Bush Presidency on their first date AND THEY STILL STAYED TOGETHER (if you’re wondering, he’s pro-Bush, she’s anti). I guess Shailene Woodley, the actress tasked with this inane role, does all she can to make her a likeable character.
Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt does a fine job playing Edward Snowden. He’s got the vocal mannerisms down, and he plays a likeable, determined young man that you want to root for (granted, his enemies are hammed up beyond belief so you have to root for him, but I digress). And personally, I found great joy in the performance of the once-great Nicolas Cage, who alternated between giving his best performance in years and completely giving up and hamming up his portrayal of Snowden’s mentor. Either way, his contempt for his final scene was worth the price of admission.
And oh, the Peter Gabriel song. You see, Gabriel fancies himself a wordsmith, and he wanted to write a song to play over the end credits. And what a song it is. Imagine the most clichéd, on-the-nose song that could possibly be written about Edward Snowden-that’s this song. It’s titled “The Veil,” because of course it is, and it features such gems as “Some say you’re a patriot/Waving the flag high/But some say you’re a traitor/And you deserve to die.” It’s honestly the worst song written for a film that I’ve ever heard, and I’m still kind of shocked that I did hear it, and didn’t have some sort of fever dream where I imagined it.
Look, Snowden is a fascinating subject. I get it. I would love for a great film discussing the pros and cons of his actions. However, this is not that film. It portrays Snowden as a complete hero (which he may very well be), but any time it offers up the counter-argument (and Stone has made it very clear that this was the goal), he offers up simple straw men, which not only makes the “bad guys” look like fools, but makes Stone look like a fool for offering up substandard expectations for his own filmmaking prowess. Snowden is a bad film, and not even a newsworthy hero or three decent performance can save it.