‘Snowden’ Review

That rarest of creatures: a boring Oliver Stone movie

• September 16, 2016 4:55 am


During the closing credits of Snowden, Oliver Stone’s biopic about the treasonous NSA analyst last seen begging for President Obama to pardon him before the Iron Lung Lady takes her place as commander of America’s unstoppable drone fleet, we hear a new song from Peter Gabriel.

Titled "The Veil," Gabriel’s song is about as subtle as the previous 135 or so minutes. Here are some of the lyrics:

Let it all go set it all free
You let the whole wide world see
Exactly what is going on
Exactly who was looking on
There’s no safe place to go
Now you’ve let that whistle blow

One would rarely be attempted to accuse Stone of subtlety. The last time I remember thinking "wow, nuance!" during an Oliver Stone film was during the final act of 1986’s Salvador when James Woods’s combat journalist realizes that the leftists he has championed are as bloody-minded as the rightists he opposed. But this song is a bit on the nose, even for him.

It’s fitting, though, given that Snowden is an on-the-nose no-shades-of-gray retelling of its hero’s (Joseph Gordon Levitt) efforts to reveal national security programs he deemed to be against the national interest. It’s about as cinematic as a Vox Dot Com explainer of the controversy—Who is Edward Snowden? What is the NSA? What is PRISM? What are FISA Courts?—and roughly as objective.

Snowden was just a kid who wanted to help his country, you see, but he washed out of Ranger school with busted legs. He would’ve been wasted as a grunt anyway, given his proficiency with computers. Soon he joins the CIA in order to visit the war on terror’s true front line: cyberspace.

While training with the CIA, Snowden meets Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage), who claims to have created a wonderful little program that sweeps up all manner of intelligence—just foreign, not domestic, natch—and could have stopped 9/11, maybe. Somehow. It wasn’t implemented even after the attacks, however, because it was too cheap and the Military-Industrial Complex (this is an Oliver Stone film, after all) wanted to spend billions rather than a few million to do the same job.

Edward’s as pure as the driven snow, so he quickly becomes disillusioned with CIA life: gathering intel on innocent people and tricking Pakistani bankers into getting DUIs so the spooks will have leverage over them gives our computer geek heartburn and hurts his relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley). But his skills are too great and the money too good to stay away for long. Soon he’s working as an NSA contractor, globe-hopping and setting up spy shops. Until he’s had enough and, well, you know the rest.

All this is told in flashbacks, framed by the interviews Snowden participated in with Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). Quinto probably delivers the most effective performance in the picture, distilling Greenwald’s hectoring stridency to its purest essence as he screams at his editor for not posting a story a couple of hours earlier than he thinks it should have been published. I’ll also admit to having a soft spot for Nicolas Cage’s final line-reading in this film, delivered as his embittered analyst drinks a Bud and watches the evening news after the Snowden story broke: "He did it. The kid did it." (I guess you have to be there, but trust me, it’s great.)

Snowden’s biggest sin isn’t that its message is obvious or biased or lacking in subtlety. I’ve always had a soft spot for Stone, in part because his stridency serves him so well. Platoon is a simple morality play, but one filled with tension and drama. Wall Street is an occasionally hokey melodrama ("Who am I?") that nevertheless hit a real nerve by vocalizing what much of the rest of the country was feeling. JFK and Nixon are like dark alternate histories of America, the latter of which did more to humanize its subject than just about any other work.

Snowden’s real problem is that it is boring. It is the cinematic equivalent of clapter, a portmanteau describing the anti-edgy humor championed by Jon Stewart that encourages applause rather than belly laughs. Indeed, it’s so like clapter that the film literally closes with a standing ovation for the real-life Edward Snowden by a crowd of techies enamored of his derring-do.

Or, as Peter Gabriel so eloquently puts it, they love him because he

Let it all go
Set it free
Let it all go
Let it go free
Set it free
Huh huh huh huh haaa aaahh
information flow
information flow
information flow

Published under: Movie Reviews