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Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' - A Generic Spy Picture With A Little Sex

Jürgen Olczyk
Open Road Films

With films like Nixon, JFK and Natural Born Killers floating around my brain, I went into Oliver Stone’s Snowden expecting at least a lot of flash and dazzle. What passed on screen, though, was thoroughly conventional filmmaking, and maybe for the first time, an Oliver Stone film is simply dull and unimaginative.

Snowden is about Edward Snowden, a brilliant, self-taught computer guy who did some tricky work for the National Security Agency and the CIA before he turned whistle-blower and revealed to Americans and the rest of the world that our country has been spying on all of us. He released this information to a pair of reporters from the British newspaper The Guardian and to American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. He did it in a hotel room in Hong Kong.

Since then, Snowden has fled to Russia, because the Russians won’t extradite him to the United States. It’s ironic that Snowden would come to rest in Russia, a country that would likely assassinate him if he did such a thing to them, and it’s doubly ironic because by all accounts from people who know Snowden, he’s somewhat conservative politically and is thoroughly patriotic – which is why he thought Americans should know what our own agencies are doing to us. In fact, after Snowden’s information was released, the Republican-controlled House and Senate raised a furor over the spying, although they simultaneously condemned Snowden for telling us about it.

It’s no surprise that Oliver Stone’s love of things like hypocrisy, malfeasance and conspiracy would lure him to the Snowden story, but odd that he does so little with it. The movie opens in Hong Kong, with Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian (Zachary Quinto) setting up their combined interview with Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). One thing that does is remind everyone that these days in Hong Kong are recorded in Poitras’s documentary, called Citizen Four, and that the Poitras film just happens to be an infinitely better work than Oliver Stone’s. Poitras’s film feels immediate and urgent; the stress and the danger are palpable right on screen. Stone’s picture, on the other hand, comes off like something right out of a weekend screen writing workshop, with all the stereotypic moves of Hollywood commercial filmmaking. Stone drops in details of Snowden’s biography and shows his growing dissatisfaction at work – at just the points that paint-by-numbers screenwriting teachers require.

During the film, with little else to do, I started to note what Oliver Stone includes that Laura Poitras does not. Well, Poitras does not flash back to Snowden and his girlfriend in the sack together. Because Citizen Four shows only what transpired in that Hong Kong hotel room, it does not include scenes of Snowden and his girlfriend struggling over the friction caused by his secrecy. The dishonesty and betrayal in the lives of spies are terrific subjects for film – just look at Hitchcock’s masterpiece Notorious, for instance, or The Man Who Knew Too Much, or the TV series The Americans. Snowden was a spy for our country, and he misled his girlfriend because of it. Oliver Stone finds little drama in these situations – the two talk and argue – but the picture doesn’t make you feel the tension between these young lovers. Buzzy music isn’t enough. Edward Snowden also engaged in a fight with his conscience. He believed in the missions of the NSA and the CIA, but he came to see that the agencies had perverted them. And that drama gets the same perfunctory treatment as the love story.

From the Poitras documentary, Edward Snowden looks like a nerdy guy with a conscience, who did something startling and important. But out of that, Oliver Stone made a nerdy movie, with the typical furtiveness of a generic spy picture, and a little sex. When you think about the huffing and puffing of Stone’s other films, it’s remarkable that Snowden has no outrage.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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