It’s hard, not to say impossible, to see a film with a political agenda and remain indifferent to that same agenda – even if the reaction we’re going for is one of repulse instead of embrace. Oliver Stone is, after all, not the subtlest of filmmakers – his films have a very strong point of view, and he’s not ashamed of showing it. But if that kinda works in his older films – most notably, JFK and Born on the Fourth of July (both of which are here kind of evoked, the first by its aesthetics, the second by its themes) – we can’t say the same about his latest one, Snowden. Maybe because there has been the genius Citizenfour not so long ago; or maybe because thinking of top hackers under Russia’s jurisdiction is everything but a comfortable thought right now. Truth is, Snowden had the potential to be a good film, but Stone was way more concerned about sending a message.
The story is told around whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s encounter with journalists at the Mira hotel in Hong Kong, flashing back to his time at the military, his conservative political views regarding the US, his romantic relation with liberal girlfriend Lindsey and his enrolment with the Agency to serve his country. Snowden lives mostly from an excellent performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who manages to nail the man’s tone of voice, as well as his mannerisms and disturbing calmness) and some thriller-like moments – particularly one involving a Rubik’s cube and a metal detector. But for the rest of it, it feels a bit like a colouring-by-numbers spy-ish film– and this despite the excellent work of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), whose extreme close-ups – sometimes just an eye, sometimes just the mouth – do wonders to capture a certain paranoid claustrophobia.
In the end, it’s the lack of moral complexity that destroys the film for the modern audience. In a time where absolute good and evil are not drama realistic, Snowden’s blind glorification of a man that, yes, made an important and brave step to show us all what is really behind the Government’s “terrorism war”, does nothing for us – we are too wary of perfect angel heroes who have no other cause than the Greater Good to eat this kind of narrative. Conspiracy theories are way more sophisticated nowadays, and – in a memo that Stone didn’t get, or didn’t care to read – they usually have two sides. Those two sides, that complexity, are what is expected to be shown in great political drama nowadays, and that is what is completely lacking in this film.
Still a reasonable film if you manage to see it as something else than propaganda, but not the best to understand what Snowden has really done for the free world (for that, again, we can’t recommend Citizenfour enough), Snowden is not Oliver Stone’s awaited return to shape (there’s always the next project), but if it makes you cover your webcam with tape, it may have just done its job.
Snowden has premiered in UK cinemas on 9th December 2016.