Home-Grown Sedition

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the Snowden movie poster (Open Road Films)
Oliver Stone romanticizes political betrayal in Snowden.

Oliver Stone flubs the opportunity to show us the process of radicalization when he portrays Edward Snowden, the subject of his latest political bio-pic, Snowden, as just another all-American lost boy — a sentimental version of how Stone views himself.

That’s the first reason we cannot trust Snowden as political history. Another is that instead of offering Stone’s own psychological and sociological vision (which is what made JFK, Nixon, and W. special in the history of American political movies), this film reenacts the 2014 documentary Citizen Four. That factitious propaganda project by the foundation-supported government-apostate Laura Poitras was already self-puffery; Poitras showed how she and Glenn Greenwald, a political pundit for the British Guardian, took part in Snowden’s plot to release confidential material that he stole while working for the National Security Agency. It was Poitras and Greenwald who aided in the creation of Snowden’s electronic press kit that was then presented to global media as a bombshell. Committed to chastising the U.S. government, they unconvincingly pretended to protect citizens’ privacy.

One reason Snowden is not enjoyable is that Stone chooses to protect the privacy of his American-born protagonists. He depicts Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) as crusading heroes, ragamuffin descendants of the rebellious spirit hatched by Stone’s ’60s generation.

Snowden repeats the kaleidoscopic, time-shifting narrative that Stone favors over strict chronology. His montage style skips through the events of the trio’s conspiracy as already shown in Citizen Four, mixing in memories of Snowden’s early career: After failing to become a special-services officer in the military, Snowden found a place for his computer geekiness in the CIA, which, through his expertise (and the mentoring of creepy and shady wonks played by Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage) then landed him in the NSA.

There’s a peculiar idealization in this biographical arc. Stone corrupts the bildungsroman genre to imply that government life automatically turns innocents into cynics and thus into activists, agitators, and rhetoricians. But Stone neglects to probe the personal impulses of this millennial trio’s Spirit of ’76–independence and Spirit of ’68–radicalization. He doesn’t show how perverse anti-Western attitudes are in the dangerous, post-9/11 world. (Instead, Snowden’s brainy virtue is shown in infantilized form, when Snowden plays with his favorite toy, a Rubik’s Cube.) The film never explores what inspired the triumvirate’s dedication to government opposition. Stone’s own cynicism will appeal only to those who buy into modish anti-patriotism.

“There’s more than one way to serve your country,” Snowden is told when he flops out of the military. He’s advised, “You don’t have to trust your politicians to be a patriot,” followed by an Ayn Rand entreaty: “One man can stop the engine of the world.” These mottos are meant to take the place of world experience and moral reflection. So it’s a quick, slippery shift into accepting Snowden’s, Poitras’s, and Greenwald’s own amorphous, quasi-political self-justifications. Stone employed similar idealization when he had Tom Cruise play the wounded Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic as a grievous-angel pacifist in Born on the Fourth of July. But the characterizations in Snowden are mere sketches: Gordon-Levitt has a deep voice, but he’s essentially playing a suspicious dweeb; Quinto pouts as Greenwald; and Leo’s bedraggled, motherly Poitras oddly recalls Stone’s usual gynophobia.

Taking position on Snowden’s crime isn’t good enough, and Stone’s automatic valorizing of him is questionable. It’s weird to make a movie in which the lead character says, “They’re gonna come for me, and they’re gonna come for you, too!” while not identifying who “they” is. And while Snowden fears an unidentified “they,” the movie nonetheless suggest he’s a hero, rather than simply paranoid.

Stone’s own cynicism will appeal only to those who buy into modish anti-patriotism.

Stone’s Snowden is cynical without wisdom — just righteousness. Falling for the contemptuous line “You’re only protecting the supremacy of your government” doesn’t jibe with his supposed interest in protecting the U.S. after 9/11. Stone indulges this specious optimism then teases with it when geeky Snowden chooses the Internet as his “sin of choice” and CIA brass tell him, “You’ve come to the right whorehouse.”

Stone confuses sexual exploitation with the idea of the U.S. as a Super Spy nation that rapes its own citizens. This resembles the disillusionment that Brian De Palma displayed in his anti–Iraq War movie Redacted. A scene in which Snowden is reprimanded by a wall-size video projection of his boss — he’s symbolically dwarfed by the looming Big Brother government — is so over-obvious that it made me wish De Palma were applying his voyeuristic, techno-geek satire to this story (and to the sexual complicity of Snowden’s relationship with his ambitious girlfriend Lindsay, an anti-American fellow traveler played by Shailene Woodley).

When De Palma and Stone collaborated on Scarface (1983), they were more politically challenging. Unfortunately, both De Palma and Stone have since succumbed to political clichés and liberal nostalgia. They no longer challenge themselves. In Scarface, it was always clear that Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, the drug-dealing illegal immigrant, was a criminal; his gangster “hero” had slipped in through the cracks of U.S. diplomacy and capitalism. Yet here, Snowden’s betrayal of his employer — which might be considered criminal in the private sector — is justified as virtuous. “You’re running a dragnet on the whole world!” Snowden petulantly objects. (Stone then cuts to footage of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez as an example of an “ousted Third World leader who would not play along.”)

#related#In Stone’s 2013 drugs-sex-class feature Savages, home-grown criminality was thrillingly understood as a warped version of American values. Perhaps Stone needs to work from fiction in order to be a dazzling artist — as he was in making JFK, Any Given Sunday, and Alexander. But when borrowing semi-documentary style in Snowden, Stone forgets he’s telling a story of sedition, and he loses both his sense of human nature and his cinematic dazzle. The smug final image of Snowden taking asylum in Russia (“I’ve gained a new life”) shows him in heroic profile, completely overlooking the fact of his (and Poitras’s and Greenwald’s) seditious radicalization. Stone abets these traitors’ pride. His skill as a filmmaker and his virtue as a disgruntled American are the immediate casualties.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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