Love him or hate him, Oliver Stone unquestionably marches to the beat of his own drum.
He’s had positive words for politicians as varied as Ron Paul and Fidel Castro. As a director, he’s created films that aggressively work to dismantle long-held political philosophies.
With a career spanning decades, he’s never been one to be aesthetically or politically caged. He can anger conservatives (“W.”) with one film and be celebrated by them with the next (“World Trade Center”).
He’s even managed to make movies that should be controversial and divisive, but end up getting love from all political sides (“Platoon,” “JFK”).
His visual style can be both frantic and draining (“Natural Born Killers”) and epic in scope and nature (“Alexander”).
He’s an artist, through and through- someone who fulfills certain romantic notions about the career many modern creators avoid. As a young man looking for fulfillment, he volunteered for a war most were forced into. He’s never aligned himself politically or personally with any cause that threatens to box him in.
Hate or love his criticism of America and his praise of dictatorships, he bled for his country and jets to nations many would have nightmares about visiting.
He’s not someone you can agree with all the time. That’s okay. That’s how an artist should be. His unbridled individualism affords him a certain leeway, in this critic’s point of view.
His latest venture, “Snowden (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD),” is about as Oliver Stone as it gets.
Following the events surrounding Edward Snowden’s leakage of classified NSA information, which would reveal how the government spies on citizens without the due process of the law, “Snowden” packs perspectives many will find disconcerting.
That’s typical for a Stone film.
Stone Hearts Snowden
While the flick isn’t a full slap on the back for Snowden and his actions, it’s certainly told from the young man’s perspective. Like him or wish him dead, his actions changed modern history.
His story is worth telling and, to tell it well, Stone took Snowden’s perspective. That helps us better understand what drives someone to do what the hacker did.
What works most about “Snowden” is star Joseph Gordon Levitt. While the trailer suggested the actor’s vocal change might end up in accidental parody mode, it clicks completely. Levitt disappears into the role, and for the majority of the narrative, we feel we are getting a documentary-like glimpse into Snowden’s life.
Snowden’s journey is something Stone gets right as well. The script, and Levitt’s mesmerizing performance, make the saga believable. He’s an unquestioning patriot who is slowly morphed into a young man with moral dilemmas regarding his country’s adaptations to the War on Terror, and his own participation in it.
FAST FACT: Oliver Stone met with the real Edward Snowden nine times before the director decided to tackle the big-screen version of Snowden’s story.
The relationship between Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) gives the film a beating heart to center the espionage and fancy computer talk. Stone, despite being well into his 60s, captures the opposites-attract quality to the two common among millennials.
When we finally get to the section of film where Snowden makes his decision to steal information from the NSA and leak it, it is both heart-breaking and an unquestionably suspenseful piece of filmmaking. Whatever one thinks of the rest of the movie, Snowden’s actions the day he hacks the NSA is a wonderfully energetic and sweat-inducing piece of filmmaking from a master.
“Snowden” received a mostly mixed response critically. The film didn’t earn much confidence with audiences upon its September 2016 release.
That could have a lot to do with the man himself.
Political to the Core
The name Snowden today is a political statement all by itself. The mere act of watching Stone’s “Snowden” is divisive in today’s 24 hour news cycle. You’d be hard pressed to find a human being without an extreme opinion, one way or another, about the whistleblower.
“13 Hours” likely faced the same dilemma when it premiered early last year. It received a modest box office reception and mixed response from critics. It took on an event almost as controversial as the Snowden’s actions -- the 2012 Benghazi terror attack.
But, “Snowden” works in the same way that “13 Hours” succeeded. It has a perspective that will certainly play with your empathies (“13 Hours” rightfully took the POV of the soldiers on the ground), but it’s a film that puts character above all else. We see the world of spying from Snowden’s viewpoint, but the film doesn’t manipulate judgments beyond that.
Take away the NSA and real world elements, and it’s still a strong character piece about a young man influenced by mentors and friends over the course of his life to eventually make a decision that will change his life and theirs.
The film has its flaws. There’s a final bit where Levitt morphs into the real Snowden that falls flat. While it certainly reaffirms how impressive Levitt is in the film, it works against the narrative and feels hokey. The device of telling the story in flashback as Snowden helps to make the “Citizenfour” documentary also feels beneath someone like Stone, though by the end of the film, it does build suspense.
“Snowden” is an underrated thriller from Stone that, like its maker, marches to the beat of its own drum. If you want to cut through the partisan politics of the media’s coverage of Snowden and see the story of a young man making a history-shattering decision, watch “Snowden.”
“Snowden (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)” includes deleted scenes, a making of feature, and a Q&A with Stone, the real Edward Snowden, Levitt and Woodley.