Oliver Stone Puts A Melodramatic Spin On 'Snowden' And The Surveillance State

Sep 16, 2016
Originally published on September 16, 2016 1:53 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The release of Oliver Stone's new film "Snowden" coincides with a campaign by human rights groups for a presidential pardon of Edward Snowden. Yesterday, all the members of the House intelligence committee signed a letter to President Obama asking him not to pardon the exiled former NSA contractor who stole classified documents and exposed a widespread secret surveillance program. Oliver Stone sees Snowden as a hero. Many people see him as a traitor. In Stone's biopic, Snowden is portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Oliver Stone, the director of the new film "Snowden," regards Edward Snowden as a heroic whistleblower. For him, it's not even a close call. The Snowden he presents is the same man we saw in Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning documentary "Citizenfour," the patriot who couldn't abide his government's malpractice and upended his life by turning over tens of thousands of classified documents to Poitras and the journalist Glenn Greenwald. What they revealed was an immense multi-tentacled and unchecked surveillance machine. Poitras and Greenwald are actually major characters in Stone's movie, played with uncanny accuracy by Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto.

The film opens with their tense first meeting with Snowden in a deluxe but spooky Hong Kong hotel. As Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, talks to Poitras' camera, the movie flashes back to his military training, which was aborted by stress fractures in his legs, his CIA education, his romance with a lefty yoga teacher played by Shailene Woodley and his growing dismay over the National Security Agency's unchecked powers. It's a textbook political conversion narrative, not unlike Stone's "Born On The Fourth Of July" or "Wall Street." The Stone who made "Snowden" isn't the gonzo conspiracy theorist of the film "JFK," which was wildly entertaining but nuts. His work here is relatively sober, like his protagonist. The Snowden we meet is a wonk, a genius at coding who goes to Geneva to work on cyber defense. It's there he learns from an effusive NSA agent, Gabriel Sol, played by Ben Schnetzer, that his government surveillance program is quite a bit broader than he thought.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOWDEN")

BEN SCHNETZER: (As Gabriel Sol) What I will be providing you and the fine gentlemen of the Secret Service is a list of every threat made about the president since February 3 and a profile of every threat-maker.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (As Edward Snowden) And these are, like, existing targets?

SCHNETZER: (As Gabriel Sol) Ninety-nine percent are going to come from the bulk collection program so Upstream, MUSCULAR, Tempora, PRISM.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Edward Snowden) PRISM?

SCHNETZER: (As Gabriel Sol) You've got a little Snow White in you, which makes me feel like the witch bringing you a poison apple. Here, exhibit A, Oakland resident Justin Pinski (ph) posted on a message board, Romania has a storied history of executing their leaders. Couldn't they do us a solid and take out Bush?

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Edward Snowden) How is this all possible?

SCHNETZER: (As Gabriel Sol) Key word selectors - attack, take out, Bush. So think of it as a Google search, except instead of searching only what people make public, we're also looking at everything they don't so emails, chats, SMS, whatever.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Edward Snowden) Yeah, but which people?

SCHNETZER: (As Gabriel Sol) The whole kingdom, Snow White.

EDELSTEIN: Not long after that scene, Snowden wants to get some leverage over a Pakistani banker with no ties to terrorism, so Sol fishes around and calls up an image of the man's sister, live, in her bedroom, stripping off her religious garb down to her underwear. When Snowden gets home, he goes to bed with his girlfriend and then springs up and covers the camera on his computer.

The funny thing about the movie is that it doesn't acknowledge there are terrorists and that the government's surveillance equipment could actually be used to protect Americans. We only see agents blackmailing foreign officials to protect the interests of American corporations and using drones to wipe out unlucky families. The movie says President Bush was bad and Obama is worse and suggests that there shouldn't be cameras on anyone. Now, you can share Stone's esteem for Snowden and still think the film would be better drama as opposed to melodrama if the advocates of broad surveillance had some stature. Snowden's CIA mentor, played by Rhys Ifans, is the glibbest kind of fop, so sanguine about the constitutional integrity of the secret FISA Court that he comes across as simple-minded. And Stone is vague about Snowden's own politics, which have been consistent.

He didn't come over to his lefty girlfriend's side, as the film implies. He was always a libertarian. The real Snowden is often described as having the effect of a robot. But Gordon-Levitt is puppy-dog-likeable throughout. As a melodrama, "Snowden" does work well. The soundtrack teems with humming wires and ghostly modem squeals. In one scene, Stone gets expressionistic. An image of the planet crackling with electricity transforms into Snowden's eyeball. When he falls to the floor with an epileptic seizure, it's as if the surveillance state has crossed the blood-brain barrier. When I got home, I put duct tape over my computer.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR, my guests will be Brett and Rennie Sparks, the husband and wife music duo known as The Handsome Family. They're best known for writing and performing the moody theme music for season one of "True Detective."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAR FROM ANY ROAD")

THE HANDSOME FAMILY: (Singing) From the dusty mesa, her looming shadow grows.

GROSS: We'll talk about The Handsome Family's new album and the desert geography and mood disorders that have contributed to their sound. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAR FROM ANY ROAD")

THE HANDSOME FAMILY: (Singing) She twines her spines up slowly towards the boiling sun. And when I touched her skin, my fingers ran with blood.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Roberta Shorrock is our senior producer. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.