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'Snowden' is Oliver Stone's slyly subversive take on a Great Man biopic

A man currently exiled from the U.S. for treason gets a crowd-pleaser that treats him like a hero. How rock 'n' roll is that?

‘Snowden’
Director:
Oliver Stone
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” may be so current that the paint on its story has yet to dry. But make no mistake: It’s old school. It’s a classic Great Man biopic, the kind that Hollywood has been making since its birth, in which real life becomes myth. It’s corny and simplistic. Its protagonist, one Edward Snowden, is flawed but always honorable — the type who has to go from principled nobody to a bona fide national hero. And that right there is what’s sneakily subversive about Stone’s old fashioned, even moth-ridden approach: It uses a cinematic language, one usually reserved for decorated soldiers and civil rights advocates, for a man currently exiled from his country — and for the very act the movie portrays as lionhearted. It’s a myth to counter another myth.

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As such, “Snowden” is the spiritual brother of “Born on the Fourth of July.” In that film, Stone took the imagery of Norman Rockwell Americana only to poison it. Scenes of July 4 parades, of fireworks, of squeaky clean schools and proms — all were shown to be forms of programming that caused Tom Cruise’s Ron Kovic to sign up for Vietnam and wind up in a wheelchair. The similarities are numerous: Stone’s version of Snowden — played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in a dinner party impersonation that quickly starts to feel natural — also enlists in the army, also gets wounded in the legs. His injury, though, comes early and isn’t permanent. Instead of fighting in Iraq, he winds up waging his battles over computers, becoming a rock star at the CIA and later the NSA.

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The rest is history, through which “Snowden” dutifully plods. The most nail-biting part of his story — his sneaking off to a high-end Tokyo hotel and releasing untold classified intel, then sneaking off again — is regulated to a framing device. That makes sense: It’d be hard to top “Citizenfour,” the doc with killer footage of the real deal as it was happening. But Stone’s version isn’t out to thrill us. It’s there to convince us, namely, that Snowden was a martyr for freedom — that his act of treason was the only sane response to a system out of control.

Stone has long been (and sometimes unfairly) tarnished as a conspiracy theorist, though by the standards of the Internet in 2016 he’s a chill Jeffrey Lebowski compared to your crazy uncle on Facebook. But he doesn’t have to go too tinfoil hat with the story of Edward Snowden. Stone still paints broadly. He shows him entering a world of bro-ish young hackers with no sense of ethics and sinister mentors who’ve been waiting their entire careers to throw warrants and accountability out the window. Stone makes Snowden into a Hamlet who doesn’t know what to do with the secret knowledge that government agents can spy on anyone with a computer or a gizmo. When he belatedly springs to action, we see the weight the choice has on him — that he must destroy himself to save the world.

The only thing that could save him is the movies. Snowden seems to have known that. It’s telling that of the three people he invited to his Toyko hotel as he unleashed his booty to the world, one of them was a filmmaker, Laura Poitras, who was then able to turn it into “Citizenfour.” He seems to have known that movies are great at not only revealing hidden truths but in manipulating audiences, turning the tide of public opinion. Perhaps he even knew that it wouldn’t take long for Oliver Stone to think it would make a perfect Oliver Stone movie.

It’s probably best “Snowden” didn’t wind up as one kind of Oliver Stone movie: the hysterical (and prismatically edited) paranoid jag, like “JFK.” Instead it’s one where the filmmaker is more dramatist than conspiracist. (The closest he gets to classic flame-throwing Stone is rightfully including the sound bite in which Donald Trump called for Snowden's execution.)Aside from too few scenes dotted with surveillance shot inserts, inboth content and style, "Snowden" conforms to a more audience-friendly bent. It burns a lot of screentime on Snowden’s relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). She’s a free-spirit — she teaches yoga and fancies herself an amateur photographer — and a cool liberal. Meanwhile he’s (at least for awhile) an emotionally remote conservative. Their scenes are like a rom-com — until Lindsay starts to feel ignored, angry that this man who can literally collect anyone's data can’t always connect with her. (Say what you will about these scenes, but one features what may be the single case in film history in which the cliched workaholic boyfriend has a real, earth-quaking answer to the stock nagging girlfriend question, “What’s so important about your job?”)

In other words, itHollywoodizes Snowden. That might be a sly joke, since the movie was too hot-button to be funded — or distributed — by a major Hollywood studio. Stone and team seem less aware that they may have made a type of movie that moviegoers no longer pay money to see. That's the only real argument against the film as it's been made. It's operating in a language that might be dead, at least at the box office. Or maybe it's not! Audiences are fickle, and Stone'smission is still noble. This is a movie that openly wants to reach audiences, wants to hip an apathetic public to the liberties they freely forfeit, wants to maybe even change the world and get Snowden pardoned. Balk, if you will, at the simplicity, at the declarative dialogue, at how “Citizenfour” is a more gripping and incisive and stylish and even scarier movie. But being square can be subversive, as Stone has demonstrated before.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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