Directed by Oliver Stone
2:14 minutes, Rated R
Oliver Stone has made a career out of exploring the paranoid underbelly of U.S. politics. His better films (and there are some crap ones too) explore fundamental contradictions within our society: the overreach of the ruling class, the sacrifice and betrayal of the soldier class, the corruption that accrues with the pursuit of power. He consistently produces over-the-top historical dramas where these themes plays out a near-operatic scale with all the manipulative button-pushing that we’ve come to expect from Hollywood’s myth-making machine.
In the person of Edward Snowden, Stone has found the perfect vehicle for exploring these ideas with this style of filmmaking. To call a Stone film "understated" feels almost oxymoronic, but these things are relative, and of all Stone's films this one feels more restrained than almost any we have ever seen from him. He lets the political story of Edward Snowden speak for itself, for the most part. After all, the risks that Snowden took to break the story of massive and illegal surveillance by the National Security Agency need not be exaggerated. His heroism and integrity have been evident for anyone to see, from the first moment that this story broke. Stone capably shows this all to the viewing audience, largely by getting out of the way of that story and by being faithful to the events that transpired. It doesn’t hurt that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is absolutely riveting as Snowden and that there is not one bad performance in the film. It is tightly written and visually stunning too. Stone is nothing if not a master-craftsman.
Some might object to the Hallmark-style romance that Stone puts at the center of the film, and the facile treatment of what must be a highly complex relationship, but I think we ought to cut him some slack on that score. It is important for us to understand just how much Snowden was willing to risk, how much he was walking away from. There really is a love story at the heart of this tale. Lindsay Mills (played by Shailene Woodley) really did move to Russia to be with Edward Snowden. And again, the performances are strong enough to pull it off. We believe in their evolving relationship, just as we believe in Snowden’s evolution from blind patriot to patriot of conscience.
I got to watch a sneak preview of this film at the Brooklyn Library with several friends, and we all walked away feeling it had far, far exceeded our expectations. Hollywood can and frequently does screw up stories that have deeper political implications, often by shorting the politics in favor of the personal. This one strikes a good balance between the two, and it deserves a wide audience.