Silver Screen: Snowden ***1/2
Some horrible genius at Taco Bell’s brainiest think tank realized a couple years ago that they had desecrated Mexican food to the maximum extent possible. There was no way for them, as a company, to do further damage. They had to call in outside help.
Thus the Doritos Locos Taco was born, now available in two different flavors. (When Taco Bell makes the shell out of Taco Flavored Doritos, we will achieve the second level of Taco Inception.)
An Oliver Stone movie about Edward Snowden sounds like the Doritos Locos of paranoid liberalism. Same spicy, sweaty inside with a nervous, crunchy new coating! It’s almost too-perfect subject matter for the director of the sublimely kooky JFK and the terrific Salvador, but also potentially a booby trap for the maker of lurid homework like Alexander and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps or the fumblingly ahead-of-its-time (and ahead of itself) W.
But while Stone was as surefire as a director gets for a decade stretching from the middle of the 1980s into the 1990s, these days you can’t be too sure which director will show up: the exhaustingly agenda-driven Stone of Nixon, the wickedly righteous Stone of Talk Radio, or, god help us, whatever Olive Stone begat U Turn?
In Snowden, Stone makes a strong case for a fictional treatment of the same material just released in theaters in the Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour. Whereas Stone often favors a blitzkrieg of information, both aesthetically and rhetorically, here he’s singularly focused on fitting information into a context. Edward Snowden’s leak of classified documents to the press launched an abstract national-security debate, but it began as a very human conflict. Stone works here to restore the humanity to the greater discussion of the issue. To that end, it’s a success.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt drops his voice an octave and slows his speech to a contemplative lecture to play Snowden. Couple that with a flattering resemblance and he becomes an eerie avatar of the man himself— a hair-splitting contrast made all the more remarkable by their juxtaposition late in the movie.
Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden is a socially awkward super-wonk, but not of the prickish Zuckerberg variety. He’s cocky but shy about it, and uncomfortably eager to please those around him. His fleeting grasp on his own limitations is what sets in motion the push-and-pull conflict that takes him in and out of government service as he struggles to reconcile the technical capabilities of spying with its moral imperatives.
His mentor, the Vader-ish father figure Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), recruits him into the CIA and seizes upon Snowden’s significant natural abilities. Snowden is equally drawn to the CIA’s creaky old audio/visual geek, Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), who shares Snowden’s technophilia but also reveals to him the dark underbelly of intelligence work, which is perverted by greed and personal agendas. He’s also influenced by his longtime girlfriend Lindsay’s (Shailene Woodley) plucky liberalism.
Stone and his screenwriters open with a freaked-out Snowden staging a secret Hong Kong rendezvous with journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo, playing the director of Citizenfour). The bulk of the narrative is conventional, chronological flashback that traces the journey from a determined Army Ranger trainee sidelined by physical injury to a self-proclaimed patriot chased across the globe by his own government.
It’s compelling stuff, told straightforwardly. Stone the rambunctious stylist is found only in fleeting glimpses— a cool visualization of webs of interconnectivity in the internet age, a dash of trippy photography during Snowden’s stress-induced breakdown, and an almost cartoonishly ominous sequence of a leering O’Brian displayed on a wall-sized monitor like Big Brother incarnate.
This is a quieter, more refined Oliver Stone, slightly diminished in potency but emboldened in credibility. He favors a darker, more lush visual motif handsomely rendered by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle.
The case Stone makes on behalf of Snowden as a hero is not uncomplicated, but it’s unambiguous. It engenders more empathy for its protagonist than the hours of talking-head interviews and Skype sessions, and proffers Snowden’s contradictions as an explanation rather than another puzzle to be solved. In its commanding restraint, Snowden may be one of the better arguments Stone has put on film, if not the most thrillingly forceful. Even for the director of Natural Born Killers, sometimes less is more.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.