"Most Americans don't want freedom, they want security."
Sometimes even the best combinations still don’t mesh together in the way you would want them to. This occurs frequently within the art of filmmaking, where what appears to be a perfect match of source material and director can’t help but disappoint. I realise this isn’t setting up a promising scenario on what my verdict will be concerning Oliver Stone’s latest movie ‘Snowden’, and while there is a substantial amount of promise within the movie, it ultimately falls somewhat short.
Depicting the true story of how an American computer professional and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon Levitt) met with journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) to leak classified information in his possession regarding illegal mass-surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency.
As I said several times when discussing this film prior to its release, despite being one of the most provocative directors of the last three decades, it has been a while since Oliver Stone has made a truly great film. ‘Platoon’, ‘Wall Street’, ‘JFK’ and ‘Natural Born Killers’ are just some examples of his stylish, culturally relevant and often controversial approach to storytelling. So while on the surface the story of Edward Snowden would appear to be the perfect chance for him to craft another masterpiece that confronts a dark side of society just as skilfully as it displays a master filmmaker at his best, ‘Snowden’ doesn’t quite do that.
In fact for all the attention directed at Stone himself in the build up to this project, the most valuable player in the project is easily Joseph Gordon Levitt as the titular character. He conveys the inner conflict and struggle of the character with ease, and it more than ready to delve into the more intricate details of his life. Without even realising it, Levitt’s performance makes the viewer comfortable with who Edward Snowden is before plunging him into a labyrinth of conspiracy, thereby emphasising the sacrifice he is about to make. Levitt’s physical alterations and tone of voice seem like an impression rather than an embodiment at first, but as the film progresses he sinks deeper into the character until he transforms. While the supporting cast are not given a substantial amount of depth, they are also very competent within their own roles.
In many ways that makes the rest of ‘Snowden’ so frustrating. As I already stated, Levitt seems more than capable of delving further into Snowden’s many relationships and interactions, but the films poor structure, offbeat pacing and repetitive nature put a limit to what Levitt can do within the role. The plot takes the unwise decision of focussing almost entirely on the build up to Snowden’s decision to leak the information and while that is interesting, thematically it makes for an uneven structure that severely hinders the film as a whole.
As the film tirelessly recounts each new piece of information that lead Snowden to uncover the massive conspiracy, each scene comes across as more of an obligation to the true story rather than letting its titular character be the driving force of the film. It has an almost episodic tone in which none of the new revelations feel distinguishable or impactful. Whereas his previous masterpieces have homed in on the characters and allowed their own experiences to comment upon whatever wider social issue he is tackling, here Stone becomes a bit to obsessed with the facts of the story, intent upon playing each event out how it actually happened beat by beat.
If anything that is one consistent flaw within all of Stone’s less successful movies (except ‘Alexander’, I don’t know what the hell happened there), he prioritises his political views over the emotional centre of the story. That’s all well and good if you want to avoid factual scrutiny. But when there is already an outstanding documentary on the subject (‘CITIZENFOUR’) that recounts the entire incident while also being much more engrossing, why not use the tools that are unique to a narrative feature rather than just recite what we already know?
Biopics should be able to cut through the story and focus on the emotions being experienced by these real characters. They can use film as a way to convey what the character endured on an emotional level rather than a purely factual one. We are not permitted a detailed view of Snowden’s own emotions or those of the people he loves, instead they all feel as if they have been relegated to the side-lines. From his girlfriend to his associates, they all feel like background accessories rather than being there to provide any meaningful substance to the movie. Great biopics work around their factual inaccuracies in favour of prioritising their characters in order to reach their emotional core. Look at the way ‘Steve Jobs’ stripped away the technology and told a story that was, in the simplest terms, that of a father and daughter, or ‘The Social Network’ and its tale of friendship and betrayal amid the digital revolution. What I am saying (beyond the fact that Aaron Sorkin should have written this) is that ‘Snowden’ is obsessed with facts, to the detriment of all else.
As a debate on our current society ‘Snowden’ brings up some worthwhile points. But as a narrative feature, beside JG Levitt’s excellent performance, it is severely lacking.