Edward Snowden’s story is a peculiar one. Many label him as a reckless traitor who jeopardized America’s national security for a personal vendetta. Other’s dub him a hero who pulled back the curtain on a corrupt surveillance state. Anyone telling that story is apt to editorialize it one way or another. And while the marketing for Oliver Stone’s Snowden tries to portray it as a straightforward retelling, it’s not hard to see that he’s doing everything short of giving Snowden a CGI halo to paint him in a positive light.
Before we dive into all that though, let’s first run through the basic story and structure. The film opens on Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in a hotel room, being visited by Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), and Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). The scene acts as a sort of documentary inside a biopic, taking place within Snowden’s own narration to Greenwald, MacAskill, and Poitras. It’s in that storytelling format though where Snowden‘s biggest narrative issues become clear.
Snowden had the potential to take any number of forms. It could have sought to be a means to understanding a complex yet important problem a la The Big Short. Or it could have tried to weigh the consequences of Edward Snowden’s actions against the clear and present service it did for the American people. What it did instead was lean too hard toward the latter, acting as a soapbox for Stone’s own views on Snowden as a selfless American hero.
There’s no denying the positive change Edward Snowden has brought the American people. Still though, to paint him as a nigh flawless hero is a disservice to his decidedly more nuanced story. Snowden released thousands of pages worth of classified documents, many of which were mishandled by the press in the days following. That’s the crux of the most level-headed criticism against him, levied even by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. Stone chooses to gloss over that in favor of his own narrative, going so far as to film the actual Edward Snowden heroically staring out the window, bathed in warm sunlight as the camera pans across the frame.
Stone pulls out all the stops in his not-so-veiled attempt to canonize Snowden. We see Snowden literally breaking his legs while in training for the U.S. special forces, begging his doctor to allow him to serve his country. His girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) is an artist who just can’t wrap her head around Snowden’s noble goal to save the world, one Chinese hacker at a time. He’s constantly running around questioning his superiors on everything from drone strikes to surveillance. All that’s missing is Snowden screaming “patriotism is patriotic” into a bullhorn with a giant American flag waving around in the background.
That’s not to say that the story Snowden is telling is unimportant. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, which is what makes Stone’s not-so-nuanced version of it that much more disappointing. As Uproxx’s Vince Mancini puts it in his own review, “Snowden isn’t a good movie and it isn’t bad movie. It’s just a movie-movie. And with an issue as important as this, we need more than that. We need more than slick visual metaphors and smug maxims.”
Understanding Snowden as more than simply a hero or traitor is an absolute necessity for any biopic. We got a brief sense of that in the first trailer for the film, which flashed through a series of labels: “Soldier,” it reads initially, followed quickly by “fugitive,” and then “patriot,” before speeding up into “spy,” “hacker,” “traitor,” and finally, “hero.” We need to get a sense for why he fits each of these labels to truly comprehend what he did, why he did it, and the direct affect it had on the American people. What Snowden gives us though is the opposite: More than that, it tries to tell us that the issue isn’t in fact as complex or nuanced as it actually is.
In fairness, no one’s ever accused Oliver Stone of being particularly subtle in any of his political biopics. But when it comes to Edward Snowden, ignoring the complexity of the titular character is tantamount to ignoring exactly what it is that makes him so damn interesting. Because of that, Snowden likely won’t find itself being used as the answer to the “Who is Edward Snowden and why does he matter” question.
Snowden is ultimately doomed by its own refusal to focus on the answers an audience actually wants and needs, choosing instead to act as a vehicle for deifying its main character. While that certainly makes for a solid-enough Hollywood popcorn flick, it doesn’t do the seminal issue it covers the justice it so rightly deserves on a national stage.
Snowden releases nationwide on September 16, 2016
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