FilmMuse: Oliver Stone's "Snowden"

Tucked in the woods away from cyberspace and cell phone towers, Edward Snowden is hunting game with his CIA mentor O'Brian, as they aim and blast the birds into a bloody mess in the field. Back in the subterranean confines of the NSA, Snowden watches on a monitor as drones soar over a remote location in the middle east and blast away a jeep. As a prodigal programmer, the government has transformed Snowden's tech savvy into a deadly new weapon in the "war of terror." Unlike many of his peers, however, Snowden begins to question the authority and develop a sense of remorse.

Oliver Stone's latest film trapezes the line between biography and '70s paranoia thriller with one of his best efforts in years anchored by the stealth performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Currently exiled in Moscow, accused of espionage by the US government for his leaking of documents that blew the lid off the intelligence agencies unwarranted surveillance of American citizens, Snowden's story is still developing. While Stone's earlier projects such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth captured Vietnam from a distant lens, in recent years he's aimed his camera in the center of current events, as 2008's W. biopic on the 43rd US President was released during his final months in the oval office.

Snowden feels more at home next to JFK in Stone's canon, where this time the conspiracy is the creepy Big Brother eavesdropping of Uncle Sam. Once Snowden realizes the all seeing eye of the government, he's become the modern day Harry Caul, taping the camera lens on his laptop and having journalists toss their smartphones into microwaves. While films such as Enemy of the State had elaborate action sequences, Stone discussed on a Film Comment podcast that the subjects in Snowden aren't involved in heart pounding car chases, yet dealing with terrifying revelations of invasions of privacy with much darker implications than just a perverted NSA worker spying on a Muslim woman undress.

The audience watches as Gordon-Levitt transforms from starry-eyed Republican seeking to serve his country to jaded, paranoid whistle-blower. While doubt has been cast on the film's ability to surpass the Oscar winning Snowden documentary Citizenfour in relevance, others have called redundancy on Gordon-Levitt's repeat casting in a dramatic role of another real-life subject; hire-wire artist Philippe Petit, the subject of the 2008 Academy Award winning documentary Man on Wire.

Whereas the real star of Robert Zemeckis' The Walk was the colossal wonder of the Twin Towers recreated in breathtaking 3-D, with Gordon-Levitt doing his best French accent as he planed the ultimate "tower heist," Gordon-Levitt humanizes Snowden as a seizure-suffering man trapped between his top-secret talents and yearning for a normal life with his girlfriend (Shelaine Woodley). This intense struggle culminates in a most dramatic scene of pasta cooking, as Snowden physically succumbs to the mounting pressures boiling inside him.

While Stone uses the occasional snazzy graphic as a storytelling device to get the "digital message" of Snowden across, he still remains a traditional filmmaker behind camera, creating a nostalgic nod in 2016 that feels more All The President's Men than Spotlight. As time wears on, Snowden's leaks may prove to be the most important piece of journalism in decades, with The Guardian publishing a windfall of secrets hidden inside a USB drive. Snowden's cameo in the film's final act, uncloaking himself once again, perhaps will encourage the next "Deep Throat."  It was a ballsy directorial choice by Stone, but in this day of the compromised Hollywood system --  as least someone still has shiny steel ones.


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