Director Oliver Stone has never been afraid to hide his opinions or to allow his personal feelings be a guide to his direction when dramatizing a story. He’s done that with the uncertainties of politics through “JFK,” the realities war in his “Born on the Fourth of July” and the moral shifting in sports through “Any Given Sunday.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Stone, there’s no arguing that he makes his points in distinct terms all designed to open a dialogue. He’s one of the primary forces in the world of movies that lets an audience know there is no passive watching but they must join in on the debate.
That’s why his latest work, “Snowden,” comes up so short. It’s not that Stone doesn’t have definitive viewpoints on what whistle-blower Edward Snowden did in 2013. It’s that unlike other major topics he’s taken on, this one has far more gray areas. Despite a strong performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden, the film ends up convoluted and confusing.
In case you forgot, Snowden copied and leaked mounds of classified information from the National Security Agency. That material revealed that the United States was keeping an eye on many average citizens. This created a firestorm of protests and left Snowden in Moscow where he’s been granted a short asylum to avoid a treason trial.
With his film about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, there were clear lines between those who believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or that there was a larger conspiracy. “Born on the Fourth of July” offered distinct looks at duty versus consequences of action. “Any Given Sunday” took clear views of how the elements of teamwork and money are part of professional sports.
“Snowden” doesn’t offer such clear choices. The screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald struggles with the debate. Is what Snowden did a great act of bravery designed to protect his country or an act of treason that only endangered lives and presented a theory about government surveillance most already accepted as a fact of life after the terrorist attacks in 2001?
Because neither argument has a distinct edge, Stone turns to his secondary story of the love affair between Snowden and free-spirited photographer Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). This gives Stone a little tension to work with, but the story never hits the kind of explosive realizations that make for compelling film moments. Even her discovery that Snowden has committed the act is met with little more than mild surprise.
Gordon-Levitt does manage to find some emotional peaks and valleys for his character, despite the real Snowden being so vanilla in the way he deals with life. There’s not a lot for Godon-Levitt to do, but he makes the most of what he was given.
The more interesting players are the supporting cast, including Zachary Quinto as the print reporter who pushes his bosses to get past their fears and trepidations to make the story public. Joely Richardson has only a small role as the person making the decision about running the story, but she nails the performance. Timothy Olyphant’s work as a spy is so intense and interesting, it should be used as a model for his next TV series.
These are only bread crumbs of a larger story, which under normal circumstances would open up a well-defined debate about Stone’s latest subject matter. Instead, the gray areas of what Snowden did cast a haze over the film that never allows the director to dig his teeth into the heart of the story.
Just like the world, filmmaking doesn’t have to be black and white. But when it comes to Stone, who has always been very clear about his points of view, the lines just aren’t sharp enough.