It could be argued that Oliver Stone has long been American cinema’s greatest living philosopher on the subject of heroism—though it’s hardly the only topic that interests him. In the past 36 years he’s made a criminally underrated horror flick (The Hand), a trilogy of increasingly thoughtful Vietnam war movies (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven & Earth), a “musical” (The Doors), historical epics (Alexander, Nixon), a sports film (Any Given Sunday), a love story (World Trade Center), business pictures (the two Wall Street movies), and a trilogy comprised of the some audacious and darkly funny crime movies (Natural Born Killers, U-Turn, Savages). What makes his career so impressive is that the breadth of his interests is matched by the depth of his inquisition and openness, enabling Stone to craft complex, empathetic portraits of men like Richard Nixon and George W. Bush whose politics, one presumes, are quite at odds with the director’s own.
His latest film, Snowden, synthesizes all of the director’s best qualities into one ruthlessly efficient 134-minute package. As the list above demonstrates, Stone has always been a director comfortable operating within a wide variety of styles and genres, and in Snowden he gives you several: It’s a thriller, a love story, a political provocation and a classical ensemble drama in which none of the elements detracts from the others. A master of screenwriting structure, Stone and his co-scenarist Kieran Fitzgerald keep a stunning number of ideas and subplots in complementary balance.
The film’s ultimate power, however, derives from the director’s return to the theme of heroism in a manner that expands upon and deepens his previous work. Many of Stone’s best films (Nixon, Salvador, The Doors) examine profoundly flawed men who are nevertheless capable of greatness, in the process exploring how heroes and icons either transcend or fall short of our—and their own—expectations. He’s a director keenly aware of the power of myths who’s equally aware of the need to deconstruct or answer them. (He famously referred—accurately—to his 1991 masterpiece JFK as a “counter-myth.”)
In Snowden, there’s no need to mythologize. Stone’s dealing with recent history that has already been distorted and put at the service of a multitude of agendas many times over. Instead, he adopts a more realistic (and relatively straightforward) approach, following in the tradition of other excellent films about recent historical events like All the President’s Men and The Social Network—yet his is a less linear narrative than those films, and a more visually expressionistic one. While Snowden might seem traditional compared to the more confrontational Natural Born Killers and formally ambitious U-Turn, it still displays Stone’s constant probing for new modes of cinematic storytelling. In telling the story of Edward Snowden’s journey from idealistic soldier and government employee to fugitive NSA whistleblower, Stone adopts a technique that is both objective and subjective, alternating between clear, concise journalistic detail and stylized imagery that places the viewer in Snowden’s consciousness.
There are constant shifts in perspective, not only between outside and inside Snowden, but between the points of view of a variety of supporting characters. Actors like Timothy Olyphant, Zachary Quinto and Nicolas Cage shine in parts which exhibit texture far beyond what would seem possible with such a limited amount of running time. Time and time again Stone and his performers employ an economy of gesture and dialogue that enables them to suggest entire histories in a few lines and images. Scott Eastwood is particularly impressive as one of Snowden’s superiors, bringing the scope and depth one usually finds in leading roles to a character who only appears on screen in a few scenes.
That said, at the end of the day this is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s movie, and he nails the real Edward Snowden’s physical and vocal attributes with flawless technical skill. But the performance goes far beyond mimicry to present a character in a constant state of moral anguish—something that might not seem so unusual, aside from the fact that Gordon-Levitt is playing a guy who can’t talk to anyone about what he’s going through. The movie isn’t just about the U.S. government’s secrets but about the secrets Snowden himself is forced to keep from everyone around him, for their safety as well as his own. Without the benefit of explicit dialogue, Gordon-Levitt conveys, with total force and clarity, exactly what he’s going through at every stage of his disillusionment, and Stone’s composition and editing showcase the actor’s work with purity. After almost four decades of directing movies, Stone has distilled his style to provide the maximum impact using minimal means.
Gordon-Levitt’s performance is key to Snowden’s place in Stone’s oeuvre as another exceptional take on the nature of heroism. It’s every bit as complicated and ambiguous as Stone’s previous films on the subject, but the complexity is all internal—from Stone’s point of view, there’s no real questioning the fact that Snowden is a patriot and a hero. The questioning comes from within, as Snowden becomes less a film about heroism than about the physical and psychic costs of heroism—and whether or not they’re worth it. Stone and his actors (not just Gordon-Levitt, but Shailene Woodley, superb in an essential role as the woman Snowden loves) mine this material so thoroughly that when Snowden does allow itself moments of triumph they’re completely earned.
This may be Stone’s most genuinely inspiring film since Born on the Fourth of July and his most poignant and romantic next to World Trade Center. Yet it’s also, at times, his bleakest work, a chilling horror film about the surveillance state under which we all live. That all of these tones—and a wide array in between—can exist coherently in the same film is indicative of Snowden’s success. It’s one of the best movies Stone has ever made—and easily one of the best of the year.
Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshal-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage
Release Date: September 16, 2016
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea. He has written about movies for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.