Why Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ Has Critics Perplexed

Oliver Stone must have been shocked when he read the reviews of “Snowden.” Not because they were mixed-to-negative, but because of one of the central criticisms: That Stone, in making a docudrama about Edward Snowden, was too restrained and too sober — that he didn’t come close enough to making an “Oliver Stone film.”

“Snowden,” according to The Atlantic, “utterly lacks the over-the-top flourishes that once made Stone’s films so compelling.” “You’d never know the man behind ‘JFK’ or ‘Natural Born Killers’ (or ‘Talk Radio,’ for that matter) was calling the shots,” says The Wrap. Even A.O. Scott, in a notably positive review in The New York Times, points out that the film’s hero “is not a figure of operatic, tragic ambition in the mold of Richard M. Nixon, Jim Garrison, or Alexander the Great (at least as Stone imagined them).… [The film’s] basic argument about government data-collection would not be out of place on the Op-Ed page of this or any other newspaper.” What’s next, WWE changing its sport of choice to gin rummy?

Stone must be thinking, “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” Back when he was making dramas like “JFK” and “Nixon,” he had the support of individual critics (like myself), but he was also relentlessly attacked — for layering in elements of conspiracy and paranoia, for distorting history into a left-wing harangue. Stone must have calculated that the story of Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who revealed the voyeuristic tentacles of the new American surveillance state, needed to be treated more delicately, since we’re still right in the middle of it, and since so many Americans (not to mention anyone ever associated with government, from President Obama to Hillary Clinton to Richard Clarke) view Snowden’s actions with extreme disfavor. Stone, I believe, made a deliberate decision not to turn Snowden’s story into firebrand propaganda.

And can you imagine the reaction if he had? He would have been reflexively dismissed. Instead, he recorded a piece of history that’s much bigger than Edward Snowden. For “Snowden” is as much a story of how the surveillance state metastasized as of how it was uncovered.

What Stone did, in effect, is to mainstream Edward Snowden. I don’t mean that he falsified him, but that he portrayed him as a man who wasn’t a crusader, who wasn’t caught up in a “paranoid” nightmare, and yet decided to take action anyway. And that cuts against the grain of how some people want to view Edward Snowden.

Citizenfour,” the 2014 Laura Poitras documentary that many critics have claimed (wrongly) leaves “Snowden” in the dust as a cinematic experience, is a movie that lent its subject a certain renegade-geek, rock-star cachet. What a lot of critics are saying boils down to, “That Snowden belongs to us; you can’t have him.” They would have been fine with an Oliver Stone movie that gave us a defiantly Stone-ian vision of Snowden — i.e., not the real thing.

But “Snowden,” in its very meticulousness and sobriety, has become the big-budget rival to the rebel “cool” factor of “Citizenfour.” Stone’s film has been shoved into that old paradigm, the Big Movie That Co-opts Indie Authenticity. Yet if you look past the prejudices, the absorbing beauty of “Snowden” is that it’s very much a mainstream political movie, the headiest and most revealing in years. Stone shows you how the surveillance state works, and why it’s probably not going away. And that’s something that a lot of people, especially Edward Snowden/Laura Poitras fanboys, don’t want to hear. They want a clean shot at an indie whistleblower victory. The news that “Snowden” brings, on the other hand, isn’t loaded or paranoid or outrageously Oliver Stone-ian — it’s not speaking truth to power (whatever that would mean). Stone’s film is doing something less sexy but a lot more important: It’s speaking truth to us.

More Voices

  • America Ferrera'Superstore' TV show photocall, Comic

    America Ferrera Blasts 'Send Her Back' Chant: 'Embarrassing and Shameful'

    America Ferrera has been a longtime political activist who has focused a large part of her work on immigrant rights. She’s now speaking out about the chant of “send her back” targeting Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar that was shouted at a President Donald Trump rally earlier this week. “It’s devastating and shocking and embarrassing and [...]

  • Game of Thrones

    HBO's Return to Emmy Nomination Dominance May Be Short-Lived (Column)

    As Hollywood braces for the coming streaming wars, HBO’s huge Emmy nomination haul this week sent a new salvo Netflix’s way: The streamer may have the volume, but HBO still has the goods. At least this year. HBO’s record-breaking 137 nominations came on the strength of just 23 programs — led, of course, by “Game [...]

  • Deadwood HBO

    Netflix, HBO Get Ready to Rumble as Emmy Nominations and Phase 2 of Voting Loom

    Last year, Netflix ended HBO’s 17-year Emmy-nomination domination, posting 112 nods overall (to HBO’s 108), continuing the service’s miraculous rise. Now comes the next goal, which may be in reach this year: Surpassing HBO’s all-time record. HBO earned 126 nominations in 2015, its all-time best and a number that Netflix could hit this year. It’s [...]

  • Ellen Sitcom Original TV Show

    GLAAD Chief: Hollywood Needs to Continue Playing a Role in LGBTQ Progress

    This Pride Month is not only about celebrating — it’s also about reflecting how far LGBTQ acceptance has come since the Stonewall riots catalyzed the LGBTQ movement 50 years ago, and about honoring the trailblazers and leaders who propelled LGBTQ visibility and issues forward in what many social justice experts describe as relatively lightning speed.   [...]

  • Matthew Shepard MOth Judy LGBT Activist

    Matthew Shepard's Mother: Why Hate Crime Is Only Conquered When We Speak Up

    In January, “Empire” star Jussie Smollett reported a violent attack at the hands of two men outside his Chicago apartment building. Local police and prosecutors said Smollett fabricated the event, which the actor still vehemently denies. More than a dozen criminal charges, including falsifying a police report, were filed and later dropped by state attorneys. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content