Let’s be honest: Oliver Stone hasn’t made an Oliver Stone movie that mattered in more than 20 years. The firebrand urgency that once defined his name — the way he directed films that seized the zeitgeist, that drove the conversation, that inspired controversy because of how they leapt into the drama of history — has, for too long, been trapped in the past. Which is not to say that Stone hasn’t tried. He has made films that bent over backwards to be topical, like the earnest and sentimental 9/11 requiem “World Trade Center,” or the goofy provocative political cartoon “W.,” or the cautionary-but-behind-the-curve financial thriller “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” One or two of these movies “found an audience,” but none found a purpose; even when they managed to connect at the box office, they disappeared from the public consciousness like puffs of smoke.
But Stone’s exile in the desert of overheated irrelevance has now ended. “Snowden” isn’t just the director’s most exciting work since “Nixon” (1995) — it’s the most important and galvanizing political drama by an American filmmaker in years. Telling the story of Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who became a whistleblower and fugitive by leaking documents that revealed the vast, spidery, paradigm-shifting scope of the new American surveillance state, Stone has made a movie that asks the audience to look, almost convulsively, at what this issue really means, and at who Edward Snowden really is.
You might think you already know. Maybe you decided, a while back, that Snowden is a “traitor,” or that he went too far in leaking documents and revealing NSA secrets. Or maybe you saw “Citizenfour,” the 2014 Laura Poitras documentary that presented the interview Snowden gave just as he was going rogue, and you decided he’s one of the heroes of our time. But whether you’re pro-Snowden, anti-Snowden, or somewhere in between, Stone’s movie is sure to deepen your response to his actions, and to the whole evolution of the American intelligence community in the age of meta-technology. “Snowden” isn’t leftist-conspiratorial propaganda (though some may accuse it of being that). It’s a riveting procedural docudrama that takes a deep dive into what surveillance has become. In doing so, it’s a movie that — no small thing — makes Oliver Stone matter again.
It helps that Snowden, played with crisp magnetism by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is the furthest thing from a crusader, or even a liberal. He’s a straitlaced, mild-mannered conservative brainiac who loves his country so much that he wants to devote his life to defending it. When we meet him, in 2004, he’s in basic training in the United States Army Reserve (it’s 9/11 that inspires him to join up), but he’s not really the athletic military type — he goes through the grueling exercises wearing clunky tortoise-shell glasses — and when he leaps off a bunk and breaks his leg, it’s because the pounding training has already slowly shattered his delicate bones. His career as a combat warrior is over before it begins. So he goes for the next best thing: a slot in the CIA, where the fight for U.S. security is already playing out on the battleground of the future — namely, cyberspace.
Snowden, terse and owlishly square, now with rectangle frames that make him look a little hipper, is attracted to the Agency the way that so many of its members have been, out of a combination of duty and a desire for excitement. During his interview with Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who will become his mentor, he answers a question by admitting that he thinks it would be “cool” to have top-level security clearance — which turns out to be the wrong thing to say. For all his eagerness, and despite his clean resume, he’s told that in another era, he probably wouldn’t make the cut. But before he is anything else, Edward is a dazzlingly gifted computer scientist: a prodigy, a geek, a hacker. That gives him the ideal equipment to be a soldier in the next war. In the old days (i.e., the ’70s), a CIA analyst was a desk jockey, standing behind the field agents, but in “Snowden” cyberspace is the field. Corbin tells Edward that 20 years from now, “Iraq will be a hellhole no one cares about,” and that the whole war on terror is a sideshow. The real conflict, he says, will be with China and Russia, fought with rogue computer worms and malware. “Snowden” is the ultimate true-life hacker thriller.
The movie doesn’t have the kaleidoscopic dazzle of Stone’s great ’90s films (“JFK,” “Natural Born Killers”), but it has his heady propulsive fever. It’s framed by the “Citizenfour” interview, which Stone re-stages as a piece of verité suspense, set in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, with Edward gliding through the lobby like an egghead Jason Bourne, fiddling with his telltale Rubik’s Cube. Melissa Leo plays Poitras as tough, rumpled, and maternal, and Zachary Quinto, all driven neurotic fire (even his flat hair is intense), is Glenn Greenwald, the fiercely independent journalist who interviewed Snowden for Poitras’ camera. You get the feeling, more than you did watching “Citizenfour,” that there was an honest terror beneath the proceedings — that given the subject of surveillance, the CIA might have burst in at any moment. But it’s not just about their safety. The stakes are so high because the theme of the interview, and the issue of whether they can publish it in the London-based newspaper The Guardian, is momentous. This is their one and only chance to expose the truth before Snowden disappears.
The movie cuts back and forth between the interview and everything that led up to it. At the Hill, the CIA training center in Virginia, Snowden dazzles his teachers and befriends an Agency veteran (a warmly understated Nicolas Cage) who’s been put out to pasture, sitting in his office that’s like a museum of ancient and legendary tradecraft equipment. He and Edward discuss Enigma machines, and the very first computer (which is there), and we’re cued to realize that the entire history of computers is, on some level, a history of spying. Gordon-Levitt does a meticulous impersonation of the Snowden manner: clipped and impeccable, his articulate, logical voice always trying to touch the reality of whatever he’s talking about. He’s certainly a geek, but with an important qualifier: He’s cool as a cucumber — free of any visible anxiety (or anger). At times, he’s like a very friendly automaton, but it’s not like he doesn’t have passion; as we’ll see, it just takes a lot to get him riled.
He also thinks he’s got everything figured out. On a dating site called Geek-Mate, Edward meets Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a local girl who’s sweet-natured and hot-tempered at the same time. They connect from their first date, but they’ve got major differences. Lindsay, a little aimless but shrewd and informed, thinks the Iraq War is a corrupt disaster, whereas Edward believes he grasps the bigger picture: the defense of the United States, and the things that go into that, which liberals shield themselves from knowing (even though they want the benefits of protection, too). Essentially, he’s making the Dick Cheney argument, but it’s bracing, in an Oliver Stone film, to see that POV represented by the movie’s hero. Edward and Lindsay’s political differences have a touch of screwball-comedy friction. When she figures out that he’s working for the Agency after having traced where his message came from, he says, “You know how to run an IP trace?” For him, that’s practically a love lyric. Woodley gives a performance of breathtaking dimension: As the movie goes on, she makes Lindsay supportive and selfish, loving and stricken.
Edward is assigned to the National Security Agency, the division of U.S. intelligence devoted, essentially, to data-gathering. He’s dispatched to different locales (Geneva, Tokyo, Hawaii), and Lindsay goes to live with him in each one. But the job tears away at their relationship, because he isn’t allowed to utter a word about what he does. Still, that works fine — until he starts to question what he’s doing. Because he has no one to ask the questions to. So he starts to implode.
In Switzerland, one of his colleagues, a deceptively laidback dude named Gabriel (Ben Schnetzer), shows Edward something he doesn’t technically have security clearance for: the CIA program known as XKeyscore. It’s essentially a search engine that can take you…anywhere. Behind any wall of privacy. But wait a minute, says Edward, what about FISA? That’s the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which dictates the rules of surveillance and says, in essence, that you need a warrant each time you cross one of those walls. Gabriel explains that FISA is “a big-ass rubber stamp,” because the court that controls it is a government outfit handing out rote permission slips.
At that point, he shows Edward the “optic nerve,” something that couldn’t have existed even 20 years ago. The intelligence community, Gabriel demonstrates, can now enter any home right through its computer or phone — through the webcam, or the screen itself. The old notion of “bugging” (a microphone hidden in the lamp!) has become something out of the Stone Age. The whole world is now connected, via computer. And so is the data, including texts and videos and e-mails. The intelligence community has access to it all, having fused itself, essentially, with the servers of the biggest Internet companies (Google, Apple, etc.).
“Snowden” has a perilously unfolding sense of revelation. The film’s moral and logistical brilliance is that what Edward — and the audience — learns, bit by bit, is not that there’s a cabal of sinister bad guys sitting in a room somewhere, plotting how to take away your privacy. The data-gathering has evolved organically, and maybe inevitably, with the technology. And yet it’s creepy (to put it mildly). At home, Edward puts a piece of tape over his webcam, because he realizes that someone could be looking at him (or Lindsay). He’s not paranoid; he’s just enlightened. The dialogue in “Snowden” is often dense with technical jargon, but instead of distancing us, the authenticity of the language reels us in. There’s something dramatic in how all the talk is about shrouding things.
The spies behind the computer curtain can touch the whole world, but the more they look at it, the more disconnected from its reality they become. “Snowden” peels this cyber-voyeuristic onion, layer by layer, until we’re watching, on a live feed, gruesome drone attacks in the Middle East, where the targets have been identified by their cell phones. A bomb goes off — a moving car gets vaporized — and if there’s collateral damage (like, say, the target’s family), so be it. No one in the control room cares, because the ideology at hand (eliminate the terrorists) has been heightened with a death-by-joystick ease that comes from staring at people through technology all day long, until they become at once right there and totally unreal. It’s the sociopathology of screens.
Edward takes all of this in, and it horrifies him, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. He’s not a rebel, and questioning authority in even the tiniest way has no place in the culture of intelligence. At one point, he resigns, but he is lured back in, and by the time he lands in Hawaii, he has begun to assemble a bigger picture. He shows his NSA associates — a fascinating club of young turks — how there’s twice as much data-gathering going on in the U.S. as there is in Russia. He knows there’s something wrong with that; it’s spying evolving into Big Brother. Stone stages a fantastic scene in which Edward talks to Corbin, his boss and mentor, on a giant screen, and Rhys Ifans’ face looms up like some CIA version of the Wizard of Oz. He’s terrifying, especially when he reveals that he heard that conversation between Edward and his colleagues. He knows whether or not Lindsay is having an affair; he knows everything, and the cozy violation of it all is queasy. By the time Edward decides to act, it’s because he can’t not act. Stone creates a powerful wake-up call.
Is he saying that there’s a conspiracy at work? If so, the movie makes the point that it’s a conspiracy we have all, naively, colluded in, frittering away our privacy through our addiction to technology. Yet that hardly means we asked the government to know everything about us, all the time. “Snowden” frames the issue so that we can frame it ourselves. The movie has a deep-focus perspective, and a spine-tingling immediacy. It ends with the real Snowden, who Stone interviewed in Moscow, where he is still living under asylum. He’s presented in a glow of heroism, followed by headlines about how much influence he has had (the new laws restricting mass gathering of data, etc.). Yet Snowden’s presence only reminds us of how unfinished this story is. The real message of “Snowden” is that surveillance is a Pandora’s Box. You may leave the movie grateful for everything that Edward Snowden brought to light, but also wondering if that box can ever be closed.