Hack the planet.
Oliver Stone’s new film is truly groundbreaking. Never before I have seen such a sight since Stone’s own Commandante, but the legendary director has found a way to surpass himself. He managed to show himself giving a two and a half hour on screen hand job to Edward Snowden…hero worship has never been so obvious than before.
You’ll have to excuse the rude paragraph, but I have to put a disclaimer up front that I’m neither a fan of Oliver Stone nor of Snowden. Stone has always struck me as a director who liked to make shocking statements for his own sake without actually having anything interesting to say but the freaking obvious, and his most recent films have become increasingly more preachy…and with a hell of lot less character development. You could say he’s making pseudo-documentaries, but he’s tried his hand at making those with the aforementioned Commandante, a hero worship of Fidel Castro (that was set to debut on HBO, but the network pulled the premiere right after the dictator executed three people and imprisoned 70 others…not fucking kidding). FYI, I’m half-Cuban with a parent who had to leave the island because of the communist regime…so yeah, any praise of that asshole is a slap in the face for me.
Now with Edward Snowden, I have highly complicated thoughts him. On one hand, the man was fully well aware that he could be prosecuted for treason and for divulging highly classified intelligence to the public, thereby violating his trust with a country and also the contract he had to sign before taking on the job in national security. On the other, the intelligence he did expose revealed bulk data collection that violated the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution which protects all US citizens and civilians from unreasonable searches and seizures. And while that government action was a flagrant disregard for well established law, Edward Snowden also broke a different kind of law to expose it. The point of this little paragraph is to detail why I believe no one, not supporters or detractors of Snowden, should look at his actions in entirely black and white terms. Unfortunately, Oliver Stone’s new film seems to be taking this exact approach.
Portraying the infamous security contractor is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, doing an off-putting vocal change for himself despite looking nothing like Snowden. His speech pattern reminds me of middle school boys purposefully lowering the tone of their voices to cover up the cracks from puberty. Regardless, when it comes to acting as Snowden, JGL (yes I’m down with teen lingo) acts quite well, even getting the former contractor’s facial ticks, and clearly put some effort into making sure he was giving a solid performance even as the script is hell bent on boring the ever loving shit out of you.
The screenplay is my biggest gripe with the film, because there’s no pacing or punch to it. It’s eerily reminiscent of one of Stone’s more recent flicks, especially Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, where the director is far more interested in explaining to you the mechanics of a certain situation, like the 2008 financial crisis, rather than giving you a competent story…or characters…or decent dialogue…or an emotional heart…or literally fucking anything. With Snowden, Stone wants to lecture you how the NSA bulk collected data from all over the world, including the United States, and without any oversight or search warrants to authorize such an investigation. And while this idea alone is interesting to delve into, you are still watching a movie and not a documentary. Hell, I could tell people to just watch Citizen Four and you’ll get pretty much the exact same experience, only somehow even less preachy.
What I mean by that is that Snowden is portrayed as a messianic figure (stroking that savior complex that was extremely evident in this John Oliver interview) and the US government is portrayed as a cartoonish Big Brother knockoff. In one memorable scene towards the end, Snowden is busy talking to his mentor/supervisor in the CIA via video conference; but rather than talking to the man over a regular laptop (like the supervisor is), Snowden is looking at a wall-sized screen giving a very cheap impression that the two are highly unequal. Further, the supervisor speaks to Snowden in increasingly suspect terms after the dude had a bout of freaking epilepsy at a party. So the whole purpose of this scene was to tell you: GOVERNMENT IS BAD, SNOWDEN WAS JUST AN ANT IN A GIANT MACHINE INFRINGING OUR FREEDOMS. It’s heavy handed as shit, and that’s not the only part where this stuff happens.
Half of this movie is taken up by uncaring bureaucrats and spies who have zero to no qualms about what they’re doing and talking down to Snowden of how they’re keeping America safe without actually giving you any examples. Instead, you’re treated to these same spies abusing this system in two instances to demonstrate why this data collection is a bad thing…actually now that I think about it, the number of times demonstrating government abuse is painfully short. The reason I’m critiquing this aspect is twofold: 1) you’re not given the other side of the coin where you’re provided specific examples of how the data collection has saved people’s lives, forcing you to debate it’s merits; and 2) the examples of abuse are simply not convincing enough to demonstrate why Edward Snowden would risk his life to expose these government secrets. I’ve seen several interviews with Snowden going into detail of how these government projects could be abused, so it’s not like Oliver Stone didn’t have enough material to work with.
Instead, Stone seemed to be way more preoccupied with the other half of the movie: Snowden’s relationship to his girlfriend, played here by Divergent‘s Shailene Woodley. While Woodley demonstrates here much more range than those shitty YA adaptations, she pretty much serves as a roadblock for Snowden to overcome as he reconciles living a life with her and being obsessed with working in government intelligence. So your B-story in a movie about ultra government surveillance is an inverted Career versus Man-type story line where the main character has to choose between the love of his life and his job….fucking what? I kept thinking to myself, “How is this romance suppose to tie into Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle on this whole government operation?” Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. Not in the fucking least, so why is this subplot in here at all?
I can only theorize that Oliver Stone realized he had written a two hour sermon praising his newfound Christ-figure and failed to give him any flaws that would make him the least bit relatable. So the director likely asked Snowden himself what was the most difficult part about operating under this NSA regime, and the dipshit likely said, “I miss porking my extremely attractive, pole fitness instructor girlfriend while I was working 12 hour shifts.” To which, Stone crowbars this completely pointless romance in the middle of a freaking spy movie in order to show Snowden’s ultimate weakness: he was working TOO hard. That’s not a fucking weakness, that’s a job interview weakness you give when you’re trying to sell yourself to a company.
And this point once again goes back to my ultimate criticism of the film: that it is hero worship of the utmost caliber. Your main protagonist is not a character, nor an audience surrogate; he’s fucking Jesus. He is perfect in every conceivable way and everything he does is for the right reasons. For me, this choice makes Edward Snowden even less relatable than I already thought of the guy. I could not shake this “holier than thou” demeanor I’ve got from Snowden in the multiple times I’ve heard him speak, and this movie tries to elevate him further to some moral highground I could never be a part of. At the same time, the way Stone films the scenes between Snowden and his girlfriend, makes me detest him even more. The film establishes that the stress of the government jobs was making Snowden increasingly more paranoid and it was driving a wedge between him and his girlfriend…for nine freaking years. You mean to tell me this chick put up with this bullshit for nine FUCKING years? Make a Christ-like movie about Lindsay Mills if that’s the goddamn case, and throw it to Lifetime. I guarantee it’ll make far a more interesting flick than last week’s boredom.
The hero worship also removes any opportunity for the audience to confront the morality of Edward Snowden, and make you seriously ponder whether he did the right thing or not. As I said, I have very complicated thoughts about Snowden’s approach to blowing the whistle on the data collection, so I would prefer a movie to debate the merits of this action rather than give me this black-and-white shit. For contrast, let’s take a look at one of my front runners for best of 2016, Eye in the Sky. It’s a film that discusses the idea of drone warfare in very human terms by giving you a small cast of characters dealing with the decision to bomb a single house in Africa or not (while also showing and not merely telling you how drone surveillance works). You get to know these characters as they confront each other over the decision to pull the trigger and risk major political fallout, as well as the potential of causing collateral damage by killing a little girl that you got to know throughout the film. The whole point of the film is to make you have an honest and frank discussion with yourself and others on the ethics of drone warfare. A point completely missed by this biopic that was only too thrilled to feature the real Edward Snowden in the last five minutes to monologue about what a great thing he did. As Sausage Party so helpfully pointed out last month; if you’re going to introduce to the masses a controversial idea, don’t act like a fucking, condescending asshole about it.
I’ve done a lot of ragging on the idea behind Snowden, because it deserves particular attention, but the film itself is extremely frustrating. While the acting is competent all around from veteran actors and actresses, especially from Levitt and Woodley, the script did nobody any favors. You don’t get characters in this movie, you get archetypes: the geeky sidekick, the sleazy spy, the excitable tech wizard, and the cynical former spy who resents the whole system. That last role goes to Nicholas Cage, who only appears in the first ten minutes and in the last five minutes of this two and a half hour flick to just give a nod of approval to Snowden’s actions. It’s about as useless as you think.
Another issue arises with this film’s pacing. Snowden begins with the titular agent meeting with journalists in a hotel, and the film goes back and forth to this hotel room as Edward Snowden relates his journey from Special Forces trainee to government contractor. I’ll admit, the flashbacks make a little more sense here than they did in Sully, but some of these flashbacks become aggressively boring as the film stops dead to lecture you on how these surveillance programs work. And every now again, Oliver Stone takes a pause to do a line of coke and shoots a boring dialogue scene from a weird angle to give you the impression that something is going down when nothing actually is.
Decent acting is what saves this movie from SOME OL’ BULLSHIT, because everything else was a freaking mess. So with that, I’m giving this a very, very low…