A MEASURED AND DAMNED NEAR MILD-MANNERED OLIVER STONE PIC
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
With the arrival of the third day of the Toronto International Film Festival, I prepared myself for a trio of films tackling crucial periods in American history. Added to the daunting nature of this task, two of the three (“American Pastoral” and “The Birth of a Nation”) featured first-time directors (Ewan McGregor and Nate Parker, respectively).
But with “Snowden,” the most current of the three American dramas, the man at the helm is none other than Oliver Stone, who has recently been making films (see “World Trade Center” and “W”) only a step or two away from the immediacy of the moment.
Stone obviously wanted to get this one just right. We’ve seen Edward Snowden, back when he was part of the news cycle, being branded a traitor and/or a hero, depending upon the media outlet and the heated poke of the talking head doing the prodding. For the discerning filmgoer, documentarian Laura Poitras in “Citizenfour” gave us a bracing look at the young man, holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong, trying to share what he had discovered – that none of our stories are private, and that they may never be again because the new technological Pandora’s box has been ripped to shreds, and there’s no way to tape the pieces back together again.
You would think that a film by Stone would start with that premise, the tattered and scattered fragments of that precious treasure chest, and show us in a dizzying array of angles and film stocks just how the deed took place. He would hopscotch across a multitude of screen views, via an arsenal of cameras at the ever-ready (in each and every one of our snap-happy hands), tracing the frenzied pace of modern over-exposure. That’s what the Oliver Stone of “Natural Born Killers” and “Any Given Sunday” would have done.
What emerges from “Snowden,” though, is the meticulous portrait of a guarded young man with an uncanny mind interested in the idea of walls – the safety they provide and the ability to scale them. And the most magnificent fortress Edward Snowden ever built was the one around himself. It was an impenetrable prison with the illusion of freedom, of movement, and even of engagement; but when it was time for that wall to come down, only he could detonate it so absolutely.
It is only right and fair that Snowden have such control over his story and the removal of any barriers between him and the rest of us. Stone recognizes the burden and responsibility Snowden has shouldered, and his respect of the effort informs every frame of this film.
“Snowden” provides greater context than “Citizenfour,” as well as a clear presence in the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt who, as Snowden, also reins himself in, constructing a performative version of Snowden’s wall to house and ultimately defines certain aspects of this man we’ve come to know from interviews and a host of commentary. Gordon-Levitt humanizes Snowden, in his acutely mannered vocal tone, in the wariness of his eyes, and in his constantly retreating ways. Every time the world takes a step toward him, Gordon-Levitt shows us how Snowden took two, sometimes three, steps back and to the side, dancing away from the approach.
Stone stares so intently at Snowden, this carefully tended version of him, that it seems as if the filmmaker has forsaken all of the tricks up his sleeve. There is talk, constantly, of conspiracy – and why not? Snowden proved to us that the government’s eyes and reach were sought to mimic that of the truly omniscient, but the anxiety bred of such paranoia is missing. The story moves, through nine years and around the globe, as Snowden trains with and works for the CIA before freelancing as a contractor prior to blowing the whistle of all whistles, but without leaping tall buildings in a series of bounds. Besides that grounding, Stone puts leashes on his cast, forcing Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, and even Nicolas Cage to heel.
Only Gordon-Levitt gets the chance to step out, but he really can’t either because he’s burrowed so deeply into Snowden that there’s nothing beyond the walls for him.
SNOWDEN Rating: [R] Grade: B-