Posted Sunday morning, October 23, 2016.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Ed Snowden, the computer analyst and programmer who exposed the U.S. government's mass surveillance of American citzens , wearing an expression as blank and unreadable as the movie he’s starring in often is itself, Oliver Stone’s untypically understated Snowden.
I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Snowden. With apologies to Matt Zoller Seitz, I’ve never been much of an Oliver Stone fan. I find his movies too...loud. And insistent. And he's too much of a believer in the idea of the Last Honest Man. I feel like all his movies tend to be about how one noble and innocent man, after temporarily losing his way, redeems himself by taking on and defeating the SYSTEM or in being defeated by it.
Of course that’s not entirely true. At any rate, it’s not true of Nixon.
But Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, Any Given Sunday, even Talk Radio fit the pattern. I probably could make the case that Natural Born Killers is his own dark parody of the same theme.
And hand in glove with the Last Honest Man theme is Stone’s vision of America as a generally dark and sinister place ruled by a shadowy and corrupt elite made up of ruthless and power-hungry schemers, thieves, mass murderers, and madmen, and in that Nixon does fit the pattern. Richard Nixon and Nixon’s America are the implicit or explicit evils at work in all those other movies.
There are too many days when I agree with Stone on this and it’s one of the things I go to the movies to escape, that grim, cynical, despairing sense that Nixon won.
So I was expecting more of the same from Snowden. But it wasn’t just the existential dread I was dreading.
I was dreading that Stone would try to make a hero of Edward Snowden, and I just can’t bring myself to think of Snowden as a hero.
This says more about my own orneriness than about anything else. I think a lot of liberals need to see Edward Snowden as a hero the way a lot of conservatives needed to see Chris Kyle as a hero. And I want no part of that. They’re both too complicated, flawed, and all too human. I’ve always seen Snowden as an idealistic and well-meaning but naive young man who tried to do a good thing, by his lights, and did it badly in a way that ended up screwing himself and tainting his cause.
I’ve also never been sure exactly what good he hoped to do or how much good he actually accomplished.
I don’t know which side in the debate to trust either. The government’s argument has been we need to do what we’re doing in order to stop the terrorists but don’t worry we’re not overstepping, which is not the kind of reassurance the government should expect people to just accept. What government has ever not overstepped? And they've released no evidence that spying on everybody has worked or that it's necessary. It didn’t help get bin Laden and the major terrorist threats that we know failed---the shoe bomb that didn’t go off, the underwear bomb that didn’t go off, the Times Square bomb that didn’t go off---were thwarted mainly by accident and the terrorists’ own incompetence.
On the other side, the argument seems to be that nothing the government does to protect us is worth the assault on our civil rights and privacy---brave words, but seem to me to come out of a sense that there's nothing to protect us from.
I figured I’d sit through the movie feeling as frustrated and manipulated and pulled in too many directions by the story Stone was telling as I’d felt by the real story as I heard it told in the news and online all along.
Didn’t seem like a fun way to spend a couple hours.
In the end I felt I had to go so I could write about it in order to maintain my standing as a dutiful liberal blogger. In other words, I went as homework. Not the best reason to go to a movie.
Turned out it wasn’t the kind of Oliver Stone movie I was dreading. It wasn’t loud. It wasn't insistent. It didn't beat me over the head with its arguments. It was even nuanced. And parts of it were quite...sweet.
A nice surprise, at the beginning. By the midway point, though, I was wishing it was that kind of Oliver Stone movie simply because it would have been more exciting and fun. As it is, Snowden is as low-key, reticent, unforthcoming, emotionally reserved to the point of repressed, and monotone as its portrayal of Edward Snowden himself.
But...while in certain ways it's still a typical Oliver Stone movie, including its being about another Last Honest Man, whether or not it’s a typical Oliver Stone movie and whether or not I’m an Oliver Stone fan doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m a Joseph Gordon-Levitt fan and Snowden features what’s becoming a typically excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance.
An excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance doesn’t mean an excellent movie. It just means a movie that’s at least worth watching for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance.
Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden is watchful, self-contained, maybe not emotionally repressed but definitely willfully undemonstrative. He rarely seems to smile on his own volition. A smile is a reflexive reaction he should have controlled. When he’s made to smile---and it’s always as if he's been made to, against his will and better judgment---there’s a look in his eye that’s partly regret and partly amused admiration for whatever or whoever’s forced him to smile, as if he’s been fooled by a card trick he should have known better than to fall for but he still can’t help enjoying the trick and having been tricked in spite of himself. And he talks openly only a little more often than he smiles. He says only what he has to say. He has vibrant inner life but he’s determined to keep it to himself. He’s an intellectual and a voracious reader. He thinks deeply and philosophically about what he reads. But you have to work hard to get him to talk about it. You have to work hard to get him to talk, period. When he does speak it’s with a slight, barely perceptible hesitation, and with a studying look in his eyes, as if he’s scouting the path a sentence is going to take for holes to avoid stepping in and roots to avoid tripping over. It’s as if he’s hooked himself up to an inner lie detector test to ensure that everything he’s about to say---and feel---is truthful and accurate. A conversation style that cuts down on small talk. That’s the point. Talking just for the sake of talking is when you’re likely to give yourself away.
Not that Snowden has anything to hide---when we first meet him, at any rate. He’s not deceitful. He’s not particularly shy, either, and not naturally taciturn. His reticence is more like a point of principle. His business is his business, and yours is yours. He’s the living embodiment of the principle he’s ultimately going to ruin his life defending. No one gets to pry into anyone else’s life without explicit, specific, and limited permission.
Conversations should be about practical matters at hand, and he’s not just willing but eager to talk about those. He’ll gladly go into detail about what he’s working on---if you have the security clearance and he’s judged you smart enough and competent enough to follow him. He just won’t tell you why he’s working on it and for whom he’s doing the work.
Temperamentally, intellectually, emotionally, and, as it turns out, politically and ideologically he’s suited for working for the NSA and the CIA, which is to say essentially as a spy and an eager volunteer in the cyberwar on terror. Edward Snowden, I was surprised to learn, was a Republican and a libertarian when he started out in the intelligence business.
The problem, he learns to his own dismay, is that the nature of the work he has to do, and wants to do, and is proud to do and be able to do, is in conflict with his own nature.
As it happens, at this critical point in his life he falls in love with someone who in her own way is as all wrong for him as it’s becoming clear his job is all wrong for him.
His job requires him to treat everyone else’s business--and it’s literally everyone else’s business---as his business. Being in love with the politically liberal artist and professional free-spirit Lindsay Mills, played charmingly, exuberantly, and winsomely---but not too---winsomely by Shailene Woodley, means allowing his business to become her business and through her the business of everyone else or, at any rate, anyone else she whimsically decides to share it with it and, given her nature, that could mean literally everyone else.
If Snowden’s motto is “Nothing about me is your business”, hers is “Everything about me is not only your business but something I expect you’ll find totally fascinating.”
Good liberal though she might be, she isn’t the least bit worried about the government’s spying on her or on anybody because she not only doesn’t have anything to hide, she doesn’t hide anything. Puts her whole life online, practically uploading her soul and personality, a virtual her who’s even more open and free-spirited and uninhibited as the analog her.
She’s an exhibitionist. Her whole life is a work of performance art. Multi-talented, her art of the moment is photography and she’s using her camera to chronicle her life. Snowden, as an important part of her life, is an important part of the chronicle. He must be photographed. Continually. Her favorite model. She adores him as a person so she adores him as a subject. He has to perform for her. For her camera, at any rate. He has to smile. And despite himself, he does. He even begins to enjoy it, both smiling and performing for her.
So, even though at first glance in one way she’s all wrong for him, she’s in this way just right for him. She frees him up to be more himself. She brings him out of himself, gets him out and about in the world, shows him how to have fun and enjoy what life offers beyond work. It’s the old, old story going back to Pride and Prejudice. Creative and intelligent and passionate free-spirited young woman finds true love and happiness by saving a dour, emotionally repressed, all work and no play from himself and the stodgy, conventional boring life he’s headed for. It’s an old story but a good story.
Trouble is it’s usually a funny story.
Pride and Prejudice is a comedy. Bringing Up Baby, another version the old, old story, is a farce. Buried in Snowden is a comedy called When Eddie Met Lindsay or Pride and Prejudice and Programming. Edward Snowden is a Mister Darcy who’s a genius computer programmer addicted to his work. Lindsay Mills is an Elizabeth Bennett who takes nude selfies and posts them on the internet. They get together, despite themselves, and live happily if somewhat complicatedly ever after.
This would be fine if only the story around them had also been a comedy. It could have been one too, if Stone had chosen to see it that way. There is something farcical about the government’s “Let’s spy on everybody!” plan to combat terror. And the character who serves as the movie’s central villain, a CIA operative named O’Brian and Snowden’s suave and sophisticated but sinister mentor, brilliantly played by Rhys Ifans, is in his essentials a comic villain.
With his long lupine face topped off by snow white hair combed boyishly forward, he looks like Draco Malfoy whom no one has told is now middle-aged and a lot less pretty than he was when he and Harry Potter last crossed wands---an effect probably emphasized in my mind by Gordon-Levitt’s looking as though the part of Snowden was between him and Daniel Radcliffe and Stone told him he’d only cast him if he played it as a grown-up and grown Severus Snape-grim Harry. The improbable hair cut hints at the man’s vanity as well as his phoniness.
Feeling professionally obligated to keep his true self hidden and to appear in the world in disguise, he’s chosen for his primary false identity to disguise himself as someone twenty years younger. In another of his guises, he’s a Hemingwayesque outdoorsman and hunter. (For this one he wears a Stetson that looks as improbable on him as the haircut.) He’s also, at various times, a bon vivant and man of the world and a country club-style hale fellow well met type of 19th hole regular as gregarious and sycophantic as if he’s congratulating business contacts he’s let beat him at golf. (This one seems to be real in that it’s something he really does as part of his spy craft.)
The role he plays most often with Snowden is that of wise to the ways of the world and magic wizard instructing an apprentice, Merlin to Snowden’s Arthur, Dumbledore to Harry, Obi-wan---the haircut is also reminiscent of Alec Guinness’s wig in the original Star Wars movies---to his Luke.
All of these disguises are self-flattering and self-aggrandizing and there’s comedy to be found in his inflated view of himself. But it’s also a wonder that he can keep them all straight and doesn’t occasionally play the wrong part at the wrong time for the wrong audience and that could have been funny, his getting mixed up from time to time. A few more good jokes and with Stone pushing him to ham it up a bit more---or giving him permission to. Ifans probably wouldn’t have needed much prodding or direction. He is British, after all, (Well, Welsh, technically, but so was Burton) and the Brits are taught how to be hams as part of their basic training as actors.---and O’Brian would have been a funny bad guy.
But even though there are funny moments in Snowden, Stone doesn’t find any of the larger story amusing. That’s one of the reasons I’m not a fan. There’s never much he finds amusing. That’s ok, though. Not all love stories are comedies. Young lovers who would have had happy endings if only the grown-ups had stayed out of it are regularly in story and song brought to sorrow and grief. (See Romeo and Juliet.) For stretches of the movie, it looks as though that’s what’s going to happen to Snowden and Mills. His work is going to break them up, break their spirits, and break their hearts. There’s even a tragic flaw within their love for each other that would have helped that to happen.
As good as she is for him in one way, she’s bad for him in another, because, despite her being a liberal hippie in comparison to him, she’s a spoiled rich girl used to living well and traveling in the “right” social circles. His job allows for both and she likes that.
As O’Brian’s protégé he’s invited into the homes of the Beltway elite where he meets and is taken a shine to by important and Very Serious People who are happy to boost his career. When he gives up government work only to go back to work for the government as a consultant, his salary jumps and he and Mills are suddenly very flush with money. At first, Snowden’s not impressed by either the money or the social advancement. But he is impressed by how it makes her happy. And, under her influence, he begins to like it too, both the money and the social success.
On top of this, Mills is a bit of a vicarious thrill-seeker and she pushes him to go out into the field and do some actual spying.
This leads to what I think is the best section of Snowden, almost a movie within the movie that could have been expanded into the plot of an entire Hitchcockian thriller focused wholly Snowden and Mills as a pair of innocents caught up in intrigue and adventure.
Snowden is sent to Austria---setting of The Third Man---where he teams up with a charming but oily, hedonistic, and morally bankrupt operative, played by a leering and cheerfully dissolute Timothy Olyphant to manipulate an innocent banker into giving them information about a would-be terrorist. The banker isn’t connected to the terrorist himself. He has family connections who have connections to people who have connections to people who...you get the picture. He himself has no idea how he’s connected at such a remove, but Snowden and his partner get to those connections through his daughter. This leads to tragedy and Snowden’s first serious crisis of conscience.
There Stone had, a story, if he’d wanted to tell it, about a pair of lovers who are tempted by money, status, and the pure thrill of behaving amorally and either fall into corruption or are saved from it by their own innate decency or the intervention of angels in human form, a tragedy or a comedy, whichever way he chose. He chose to go back to his main story about Snowden standing up to the System. That could have been a tragedy or a comedy too. Except for one hitch. Neither the tragedy nor the comedy happen because neither did happen.
You’d think that wouldn’t have been a problem for him since what really happened has never stopped him before from telling the story he wanted to tell and making the points he was determined to make.
But this time it did. Stone let himself be blocked by reality.
The real Snowden and Mills seem to be living out a romantic comedy. Who knows if they’ll live happily ever after, but from all appearances they’re living pretty happily in the here and now, despite the inconvenience of their Russian exile. The System gets taken down and Snowden and Mills survive as individuals and as a couple, leaving Stone with a love story that’s neither comic nor tragic just kind of sweet, interrupted too often by a not particularly dramatic historical drama.
Again, there’s a way he could have dealt with this. The one I suggested earlier. He could have the plot that surrounds the romance a comedy too or, at least, comedic.
For reasons I can only guess at, he didn’t do that. But then he didn’t do what I’d actually expected him to do. Treat the whole thing as a typical Oliver Stone overwrought melodrama.
There’s a surprising matter-of-factness to his storytelling in Snowden. A this happened, then this happened, then that happened straight-forwardness that not only cuts down on the suspense but causes the movie to resist emotional involvement.
How are we supposed to feel about all of this?
The answer seems to be a bit of a shrug.
Ok. Then how about think? What are we supposed to think?
I was dreading going to Snowden because I expected Stone would try to be as emotionally manipulative and intellectually dishonest---in the cause of dragging the audience to the right side---as he’s often been. I didn’t want to be imaginatively wrestled into taking Snowden’s side and cheering him on as a hero. But I think I would have enjoyed that better.
Stone seems to be way too willing to let the facts speak for themselves for once. In truth, he seems barely interested in presenting the facts at all. At any rate, he doesn’t do much to dramatize them, let alone over-dramatize them in keeping with what I’ve always thought is his idiom. He appears to take it for granted we know all we need to know about the government’s massive data gathering enterprises and that we disapprove on intellectual, constitutional, and moral grounds, and he doesn’t have to work to make us disapprove.
The result is some rather desultory storytelling with many confusing and lazy plot twists and turns. Details and events have to be left out, compressed, or elided in all historical movies for the sake of time and in order not to overwhelm the audience with facts as if in a well-meaning but counterproductive effort to help us cram for a final exam. But in Snowden those left-out details and events aren’t compensated for either imagistically or through poetic license. This happened, then that happened, then...this happened. Wait? What? How did we get to that last this happened? What happened during the ellipses?
We’ll have to go back and read the books.
As for Snowden himself and what good he did...or harm…
On this point, as with the other, Stone seems to take it for granted that since we already agree that what the government was doing was wrong on principle, then we already agree that what Snowden did to put a stop to it was right on principle, and therefore Ed Snowden is a champion of truth, justice, and the American way on principle and we will cheer for him in the end on principle.
I don’t like to go to movies on principle. I went to this one on the principle I needed to do my homework for the blog and I wasn’t looking forward to being manipulated. But I would rather be manipulated into cheering for the hero than being expected to do it on principle. And that’s what I missed watching Snowden, Stone’s old manipulative tricks.
I missed his special pleadings. I missed his tampering with history and the histrionics that usually go with it. I missed his very dark view of America. The government as presented in Snowden is generally incompetent while being too competent at the wrong things, corrupt but only routinely so and mainly because individual actors are corrupt, and generally wrongheaded to the point of stupidity. Which is why I think it could have been treated comically. But it isn’t actively evil. And it isn’t anybody, really. President Obama appears in clips that show him saying things we now know were official lies. But that’s all they are, official lies of the sort any and all political leaders engage in as a matter of course. There’s no George W. Bush here, no Dick Cheney. I didn’t miss them, particularly. But I missed there being real villains.
Especially the chief villain of Stone’s dark vision.
I missed Nixon.
Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone, based on the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and The Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkerson, Rhys Ifans, Timothy Olyphant, and Nicolas Cage. Rated R. Now in theaters.