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.