My screening of Snowden opened with Oliver Stone wearing his finest menswear in a swanky study, holding his cell phone while lecturing about the value of privacy. There are people who want to look at your phone and steal your data, he basically said, with the stentorian command of a man bearing hard truths. It was as if he was telling us that the CIA or the Cubans or LBJ had killed JFK. Right as I was ready to roll my eyes at the sensationalism, his tone flipped, and he reminded us to turn off our phones during the movie. It was a cute bait-and-switch: a famously dour director showing that he could, in fact, get the joke.
There aren’t a lot of jokes in Snowden, Stone’s new biopic about the hyper-polarizing former NSA contractor largely responsible for exposing U.S.A’s sweeping surveillance programs. (The man, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, does once quip that his girlfriend “tastes like liberal” after their first kiss in the movie. Thankfully, the cuteness basically ends there.) Back in 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the government was indiscriminately spongeing up the world’s private data, a scandal that validated conspiracy theorists and paranoid Sri Lankan rappers. He showed how the webcams of regular people were being surreptitiously accessed, and how their naughty texts and Gchats were being scoured for incriminating evidence, turning every global citizen into a potential pressure point in the fight against terror.
When the news broke three years ago, the U.S. government was forced to not only admit wrongdoing, but to also change tactics as a broader debate over privacy and security played out in the public. Snowden absconded to Russia for political asylum, owing to the government’s desire to rendition the shit out of him, and he’s lived there for the last few years while continuing to speak out about privacy-related issues.
By now, this is well-trod knowledge. It was chronicled in an award-winning docudrama, 2014’s Citizenfour, which followed journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald in their attempt to corroborate and communicate Snowden’s story. Now, three years after Snowden became a household name, Oliver Stone has given us a scripted melodrama that exists to humanize the man behind the metadata. In the public, Snowden is still treated like Benedict Arnold by political leaders on both sides of the aisle; polling indicates that while American millennials are slightly more favorable toward him, he remains a divisive figure. Given Stone’s reputation as an activist filmmaker, Snowden comes with a very pointed purpose: Make the audience understand Snowden, and maybe his country will love him.
Snowden may have some bookish sex appeal, but he’s essentially the world’s most notorious geek. This might have been Stone’s biggest hurdle in making this movie–finding an anonymous, everyman who wouldn’t sex it up too much. Enter Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a man who has seemingly rebranded his career as a socially-minded thespian, following a short stint as Zooey Deschanel’s best friend. He’s good at playing boring, though his performance is is slightly hampered by our real-world impressions of Snowden, who’s remained in the public eye for years. Watching the movie, it’s hard not to note how JGL’s voice is much heavier, as though he’s speaking into a voice changer set to “dumb,” and how he lacks the self-conscious tics of a lifelong computer nerd.
Given Snowden’s unexceptional personality, Stone is clear to show his evolution from mild-mannered hacker to heroic whistleblower. It becomes clear in the film that Snowden is pushed to action not by any grandstanding impulse, but because of a slow accretion of transgressions that his conscience just can’t ignore. Stone’s telling goes where Citizenfour didn’t by reassembling its subject’s personal life, in order to give a sense of how a man who once quoted Ayn Rand as an inspiration could end up committing legal treason in service of a righteous moral truth. Early on, Snowden cites 9/11 as the most important moment of his life, and bristles when Lindsay Mills, his eventual girlfriend (Shailene Woodley), disses Bush. We see him smile at the idea of an Obama presidency, before eventually turning conspiratorial as the data collection sprawls out of control. It takes us step-by-step to show how the veneer of a perfect life—the big salary, the Hawaii beach house, the wonderful girlfriend—could be worn away by the nagging feeling of being complicit in evil.
Citizenfour, which picked up an Academy Award for Best Documentary, worked like one of those Soderbergh art-house thrillers where the camera angles are all askew and everyone’s halfway between muttering and kissing. The staging was unpretentious, but the stakes were so high you couldn’t help but be chilled as Snowden soberly explained how easily the NSA could peek into our private lives. Stone, who loves subtlety like a shark loves land, can’t resist being heavy-handed. After Snowden tells Lindsay about the NSA’s offer to move to Hawaii, where he’ll embark on the work that will eventually lead to his whistleblowing, he stands over a pot of boiling water as the steam clouds up his glasses. (He’s lost in the fog, you see.) After Snowden exits the NSA’s Hawaii base by way of a tunnel, shortly after transferring the incriminating evidence to a concealed SD card, he walks into a blinding white light, prompting him to smile. (He feels pure, you see.)
It’s maybe true that many Americans don’t have much of consequence to hide from their government–not unless the NSA is really stoked on crawling through the memes they’ve Gchatted to friends–but the implications of how that access could and has been abused is deeply unsettling. Unlike other government employees with top clearance, Snowden was visibly uncomfortable by those implications. In one of the movie’s livelier scenes, he’s recruited into performing a bit of spycraft, as he chats up bankers at a ritzy party in the hopes of finding someone who can give him a bead on the flow of terrorist dollars. (One banker, annoyed by his awkwardness, remarks that he must be a spy, or just stupid.) But Snowden can’t stomach the grimier requirements of spy work, and blanches when one banker’s life is turned upside-down by an oily agent (Timothy Oliphant) who sees his manipulations as servicing the greater good.
In Snowden, Stone has a subject who went through all of the steps to make sure his revelation of a sweeping conspiracy wouldn’t just be called a “conspiracy theory,” that blanket phrase used to dismiss narrative dissenters as cranks. His existence validates deep-seated anxieties about the shadowy parts of the government and society that Stone has spent his career exploring. It’s hard to think of a more sympathetic filmmaker to Snowden’s cause—they even met nine times during the making of the movie. (This sympathy translated to an awful production experience, as though Stone were locked into a death spiral with the endeavor—he skipped his mother’s funeral to continue filming, in order to not lose time.)
“Secrecy is security, and security is victory,” Snowden’s CIA mentor tells him at one point. The ulterior point couldn’t be made more obvious if he said that while wearing a shirt that said BIG BROTHER—and, in fact, there’s one scene where he speaks to Snowden while his face is projected onto a massive wall, looming over the diminished soon-to-be whistleblower. After watching the movie, it’s easy to think it was a bit heavy-handed, or that it could have been told with a lighter touch. But because the stakes remain high, and because we haven’t stopped taping over our web cameras, it’s understandable why Stone would avoid artistic ambiguity. At a Fathom event for the movie, Stone, Gordon-Levitt, and Woodley were joined by the real Edward Snowden, who beamed into the theater via teleconference. At some point, Stone was presented with a birthday cake, and serenaded by the audience. Above him, Snowden’s video-stretched face laughed and smiled at the spectacle. It was their short moment of levity, before returning to the real work.