Snowden is another piece of anti-propaganda propaganda from Oliver Stone. And I mean that as a compliment.
Much of Stone’s career has involved questioning the mainstream American narrative we’ve all been fed: that war is our birthright (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July); that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone (JFK); that greed is good (Wall Street). And more often than not Stone has questioned these narratives using the same tools with which they’ve been told: seductive imagery and heroic iconography. What better way to counter a well-told story, after all, than by sharing a better-told one?
In Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who revealed the United States government was using the Internet to spy on its own citizens, Stone has found another one of his patented, disillusioned patriots. Like Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July or Jim Garrison in JFK, the main character in Snowden is another establishment insider who comes to believe that the system he’s a part of is rotten. And he struggles to expose that rottenness no matter the personal cost.
Co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, the movie is framed by Snowden’s 2013 meetings with journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo). In between their interview sessions we see flashbacks from Snowden’s career, beginning with his early days as an eager Army recruit, and from his personal life, particularly his tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).
As the figure at the center of all of this, Joseph Gordon-Levitt drops his voice to a lower, thicker register and turns inward; this is a guy uncomfortable with cameras even before he learns that our laptops can be turned into instant peepholes. The movie emphasizes this whenever Lindsay tries to take his picture. Stone and his editing team cut away to the black-and-white still images she captures, and they routinely feature Snowden’s hand blocking the lens.
Such aesthetic flecks are what keep Snowden interesting. Rather than overdose on the visual possibilities that this surveillance-themed story might encourage (think Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State), Stone only occasionally punctuates his movie with formal flourishes—some subtle, some looming. You might not notice the way Lindsay’s pictures of Snowden, as they walk around Washington D.C. on their first date, segue into still images of the anti-Bush protestors they pass outside of the White House. Unmissable, however, is the later moment when Snowden’s allegiance is being questioned by his NSA superior (Rhys Ifans), whose video image is projected onto an entire wall. As his boss hints that he sees and knows more than Snowden ever thought possible, his giant, Oz-like head makes the claims all the more believable.
All of this is good, muckraking stuff—a counterpoint to the government’s claim that the NSA was protecting Americans’ privacy. It isn’t until the end that Snowden gives in to awkward agitprop. Having exposed the NSA and now in hiding from the American government, Snowden appears—via video link—to speak at a conference. Between cuts, Gordon-Levitt’s face is swapped out for the actual Snowden’s, who then proceeds to make the case for his actions as those of a patriot. As the movie concludes, the conference audience applauds. Whether you support Snowden’s actions or not, there’s no denying that ending the movie in this way is propaganda in the broadest of terms.