Director: Oliver Stone
Digestion is all too important. For one’s health, but also for one’s mind. And while the term is most closely associated with food, we oft ignore the relevance of palatable exposition in non-fiction storytelling. Oliver Stone, for all his flaws, is certainly a master in that realm. I remember watching JFK, enraptured by the fluidity of each new piece of intelligence. But with that came Stone’s dark side: namely his fact-bending, his aggressive political bias and his cinematically manipulative form. SNOWDEN is no different, and though the epic running time certainly went by like a breeze, I came to realize I hadn’t watched a film, but had been spoon fed a Sparknotes reading, leaving me desperately nostalgic to re-watch CITIZENFOUR.
So what is SNOWDEN’s purpose? Stone has crafted a film that functions much like 2015’s THE BIG SHORT did. It’s information. Lots and lots of information. But unlike Adam McKay’s film, Stone hasn’t innovated the form here. Where McKay used heavy exposition in order to mimic the statistical qualities of a documentary within the constraints of an ensemble comedy, Stone’s film is still trying to be a character drama in the foreground. This is also its Achilles heel. SNOWDEN’s stakes are minimal. It is about a man who grows paranoid about national security, causing his health to suffer. But instead of honing in on his titular character and the last minutes before he became a labeled traitor, Stone decides to run us through his entire career. We get brief ideas of what kind of man SNOWDEN was before he threw his life away, but the narrative fundamentally services one thing, and one thing only: showing us all the information that Edward Snowden helped expose.
The edgiest nerd you’ll ever meet
The irony here is that CITIZENFOUR was also an unorthodox documentary. Director Laura Poitras’s film is about the paranoia and anxiety leading up to a world-wide scandal. It is not about the data Edward Snowden released, but the stress of being confined to a single hotel room for days on end. SNOWDEN, much like a traditional documentary, is concerned with everything Poitras did not do in her film, and consequently, it’s also rather boring. That isn’t to say that SNOWDEN isn’t noteworthy for its intentions, but Stone’s film parades itself like a tense thriller, when in fact it’s nothing but facts and figures. Where Poitras made a thriller disguised as a documentary, Stone did the opposite. The real problem is that I don’t think he actually recognizes this.
THE BIG SHORT worked because it was a willful exposition dump. It didn’t hide its true identity from its viewer. Audiences applauded McKay’s comedic punches with his quick cuts and timely topic. Viewers too lazy to understand the housing crisis were able to digest it through Anthony Bourdain cameos and Steve Carrel’s dry wit. SNOWDEN preaches a similar ideology. This is a film for those unfamiliar with what crimes the United States committed. In addition, it dares to lift the curtain off of someone who has been labelled a criminal by his own people. For that reason, I applaud Stone, but SNOWDEN has serious trouble balancing its character profile with its information. Ultimately, its exposition feels juvenile at best and TV-movie at its worst. It’s an ugly film that had me chuckling with its CSI-like edits and visual effects. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does his best portraying the titular character, but has little to work with other than the footage of the neurotic wiz-kid witnessed in CITIZENFOUR. As such, the film’s strongest scenes are re-enactments of the documentary.
“You know I like it when we role play. Now go be a documentary, Baby.”
SNOWDEN isn’t a failed film, but rather a clumsy one. There are brief moments here that engaged me, and the film’s sense of tone and pace kept me from leaving the theatre. But for a film with an agenda, there is too much that does not work here. Oliver Stone has shot what is possibly his ugliest film to date, but aesthetics aside, the real culprit is SNOWDEN’s inability to completely emotionally engage me, despite all of its pandering and “you too can change the world” bravado. Levitt spends much of this film staring at screens while we learn just how shady government surveillance can be. At a certain point, I begin to wonder why I don’t just read up on it myself. Stone hasn’t made me care for a character. He has made viewers more aware of what Snowden helped shed light on. I can’t fault him for his noble efforts, but I can criticize him for being so milquetoast in his delivery. Stick to your laptops, read up on Snowden, and watch CITIZENFOUR. This is a data dump you can avoid.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend