Oliver Stone has had a rough 12 years as a filmmaker. I wouldn’t say it’s been a bad dozen years, but with his lethargic “Alexander” followed up by an earnest “World Trade Center,” a somewhat toothless “W.” and a “for the money” effort in a “Wall Street” sequel no one asked for, the grit, energy and penchant for controversy that made Stone a must-see filmmaker in the ’80s and ’90s hasn’t seemed to be there for a while. Granted, I really liked “World Trade Center” and “W.,” but neither comes close to what we experienced from him in “JFK” or “Platoon” or “Born on the Fourth of July” or even “Natural Born Killers” and “Nixon,” which were all made from a director with passion and imagination, even if they weren’t always particularly well-made. How fortunate, then, that he found Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who risked his life, and life in prison, to reveal the truth about the government’s surveillance apparatus, as much of a fit as we figured it might be for him. Back is the urgency and visual and narrative ingenuity he employed in his masterpiece, “JFK,” and Snowden’s life trajectory from hopeful patriot to exiled traitor is perfectly suited for Stone’s camera.
For the record, I have mixed feelings about the man (here so well played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and what he did when, in 2013, he stole information about government surveillance and published it, through reporters, for the world to see. Is it important that we know what Snowden is telling us? Absolutely. Do I think his methods in getting that information to us were wrong? Yes. Do I think he should be punished to the full extent of the law, as he is very likely to have happen were he ever to leave his current residence in Moscow? No; his purpose was not meant to weaken government capabilities or empower the enemy but to allow the people of the US, and the world, to make an informed decision on what security in the cyber age should look like. But while I’ve seen and read plenty about Snowden (although I still haven’t watched the Oscar-winning documentary on him, “Citizenfour”), I must give credit to Stone and his co-writer (Kieran Fitzgerald) for being able to get us into the head of the man in a way that is accessible and compelling. It helps to have an actor as talented as Gordon-Levitt in the role, though, and it’s one of his best performances, and he is matched up well with Shailene Woodley as Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s long-time girlfriend, who now resides in Russia with him. Brilliant people are tricky to make films about, because so much of what makes them compelling is in their head, and what drives them is not immediately accessible knowledge. Stone and Gordon-Levitt are able to get to the heart of what drives Snowden through his action and his intellect, and using the famous interview he gave journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewan MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in Hong Kong that signaled who deserved credit for the information was an important choice to make- that was our first introduction to Snowden, so it only makes sense that that is how we get to know him best as he recounts his life, his time in the military before being recruited for the CIA and NSA, to the people who brought him to the world. Say what you will about Stone, but he (mostly) understands how to bring an audience into a story, and “Snowden” is one of his best efforts in years.