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Oliver Stone Makes The Edward Snowden Story All Too Simple

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 16, 2016 1:00PM

Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is tested in "Snowden." (Photo credit: J├╝rgen Olczyk / Distributor: Open Road Films.)

What is Oliver Stone's least favorite color?

Any shade of gray.

Snowden, the latest film from the wildly overrated director/provocateur, continues Stone's long history of avoiding ambiguities or uncomfortable complexities that might diminish his intended message. Too bad, because Edward Snowden's story is where ambiguity meets irony: the man who did so much to reveal the widespread surveillance abuses of the U.S. government was granted sanctuary in Russia—a country notorious for widespread surveillance abuse.

Snowden's advocates point out that, having been denied asylum elsewhere (largely due to pressure the U.S. applied in the aftermath of his disclosures), the computer intelligence analyst had little choice: either face espionage charges in America, which had taken harsh measures against early whistleblowers, or accept safe haven in Russia. But it doesn't make you an NSA apologist to speculate that Vladimir Putin's government didn't welcome Snowden out of sheer generosity. (Snowden, to his credit, has recently publicly criticized Russian surveillance policy.)

But Stone isn't the kind of filmmaker to dwell on the murkier aspects of Snowden's situation. Instead, his movie paints a portrait of an idealist torn between his deep patriotism and his growing despair as the full scope of his country's internal spying becomes clear. That may be an accurate portrait of Snowden, but it's diminished by the movie's lack of context concerning what led us into this quicksand of invasiveness.

Clearly, throughout American history, many very honorable men and women saw their own ideals slowly eroded in the name of protecting America from its enemies. That was true long before 9/11 and even more so after it. But the Snowden screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald assumes mass audiences can't handle grappling with a long, slippery slope to diminished freedom. So Snowden's fictionalized CIA trainer (Rhys Ifans, conveying little but cold menace) goes from being a mere mouthpiece of rationalization to a literal Big Brother—the projection of his head filling an entire wall as he grills Snowden during a video conference. The ham-fisted symbolism is pure Stone.

To be fair, that scene aside, Snowden shows much more subtlety than many of Stone's films (Natural Born Killers may be his in-your-face nadir). That's largely thanks to a skillful lead performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Capturing much of Snowden's voice and physical attributes, the actor makes the protagonist's intense stress and crushing disappointment in his government palpable.

Shailene Woodley and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Snowden." (Photo credit: William Gray / Distributor: Open Road Films.)

As his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, Shailene Woodley also helps to make some largely expository dialogue feel real. Stone anchors the film as a troubled love story, with Snowden's secrecy taking a toll their life together. It's the most involving part of the movie, but it's overshadowed by an overall dramatic clunkiness.

Top-notch actors, including Tom Wilkinson and Melissa Leo, are wasted in undemanding supporting roles, while Nicolas Cage manages to be reasonably restrained as a sympathetic CIA instructor. But what's the point of a restrained Nic Cage? If he can't let his freak flag of overacting genius fly, why cast him?

Stylistically, Stone remains an empty razzle-dazzle artist. To his credit, he often swings for the fences with off-kilter camera angles, daring tracking shots and energetic editing. He has never been accused of playing it safe, but like the similarly heavy-handed Spike Lee, Stone rarely misses an opportunity to overdo it. He wants to be Scorsese, but he's closer to Tony Scott (Top Gun, The Last Boy Scout).

The issues and themes of Snowden are clearly right up Stone's alley. Important social and political happenings have informed nearly all his movies. But in handling what may be the most vital story about government surveillance in American history, he seems far out of depth.

Snowden's story has been told onscreen before, in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, and one might argue the weight of the true story—one that could put our faith in democracy in doubt—is too much for dramatization.

Yet 40 years ago, All the President's Men managed to carry the same kind of burden with much more finesse. Nixon's Watergate seems almost trivial compared to the massive scandal Snowden shed light on. But All the President's Men showed a dramatic film could tackle an historic moment in government exposure with impressive results. Edward Snowden isn't the wrong subject for a drama, Oliver Stone was simply the wrong man for the job.

Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald; based partially on "The Snowden Files" by Luke Harding and "Time of the Octopus" by Anatoly Kucherena. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson and Rhys Ifans. 134 mins. Rated R.

Now playing at theaters nationwide.