*. What happened to Oliver Stone? Nothing out of the ordinary. His most creative years are now long past and he hasn’t been able to reinvent himself in an interesting way. In his prime he was a passionate, forceful filmmaker, but more recently he seems to have lost focus. Not mellowed so much as become tired and disoriented.
*. When did he lose his mojo? I’m not sure, but Savages and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the two dramatic features before this film, were both terrible. Snowden isn’t much better.
*. Though I think you could make an argument that it’s actually worse. What I mean is that it takes a true story, ripped from the headlines, dealing with matters of global importance and everyday application, bound up in a thrilling plot involving a heroic whistleblower and intrepid journalists. How do you mess that up?
*. It’s not as though Stone was uninspired. I think material like this really turns him on. But he just can’t make anything of it.
*. This is a movie with no sense of tension or outrage or much of anything going for it. It’s almost comfortably sure of its convictions about the idea of America triumphing over its enemies. As Stone remarks in his commentary for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, he’s really a romantic at heart and this kind of stuff comes naturally to him.
*. The thing is, most whistleblowers are complicated and not always likeable people. Just look at Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning. Or, if you’re a film buff, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) in The Insider.
*. The same could be said for most computer geeks, and I suspect Edward Snowden is cut from the same cloth. I support the stand he took, but I don’t know if I’d want to have a sandwich with him. And yet Stone seems determined to make him into an All-American Hero.
*. This makes the whole movie into something dull and formulaic. The script is full of stuffy speeches even in the most informal of settings (Snowden going on about the Nuremberg trials at a party, O’Brian lecturing on how secrecy is security while out hunting with Ed). And the look of it!
*. What was I just saying about dull and formulaic? The dialogue has nothing on the direction here. It’s hard to believe a younger Stone so un-ironically indulging stuff like (1) Snowden walking out of the tunnel from the surveillance headquarters into the blinding light of justice and freedom; (2) pointless filler shots of him playing “cute young couple in love” on the beach with his long-suffering girlfriend (a conventional part in such stories); (3) a final scene of an audience rising to give Snowden a standing ovation, which is as subtle as a sit-com laugh track in telling us what our response to the film we’ve just seen should be.
*. There are glimmers of originality. It seems at times as though they were thinking of making more out of the screen as a motif, including Snowden’s glasses often being shot in extreme close-up and reflecting some other shiny surface. The giant face of Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) as Big Brother is about the only interesting visual in the entire movie. But when Robot-Snowden wheels on to the stage at the end he seems to have shrunk, and been made less real, in a way that I don’t think could have been intentional.
*. You’re in pretty bad shape when your movie on a dramatic and important headline story is a lot less interesting than the story itself. I’m afraid Oliver Stone is in bad shape.