Oliver Stone has never met an American fiasco he didn't like, lament, and, with any luck, lambaste in one of his films.
Whether it was America's involvement in Vietnam (a trilogy of films that brought him two Best Director Oscars for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July), the corruptions of Wall Street, the damaged psyches of two American presidents and the conspiracy surrounding the murder of a third, the politics of America's favorite pastime--the NFL, and the violence glorified by the mass media in Natural Born Killers, Stone is America's most renowned socially-conscious, politically promiscuous film director.
No one has built a career in the arts so dependent on the moral failings of American institutions. Stone is aptly surnamed given all the stones he has cast at the American power establishments. And yet how fortunate that making movies became his life's work. Cinema was the perfect forum to project his cynicism about the abuses of power, the corruptions of money and the damage done by governmental secrecy.
His latest film, Snowden, a biopic about National Security Agency ("NSA") whistle-blower Edward Snowden, is his best and most intellectually challenging film in years. It is also visually restrained, but mesmerizing nonetheless, with blinking computer terminals and a massive ethical quandary giving the film, at times, the pacing and excitement of a thriller.
Not unlike some of his earlier work, the politics Stone wears on his sleeve and slips into his frames will no doubt become hotly debated if not outright condemned. For many people, Snowden is no hero, but a self-righteous computer whiz who compromised national security and endangered the lives of those on the front-lines of terrorism. None of those concerns, however, are entertained in this film; the subject matter, and the subject himself, so closely resembles Stone's own motivations and worldview.
Edward Snowden, who is presently seeking asylum in Russia until he can find a more agreeable place to hide from the extradition powers of the United States, is the kind of free spirit that Stone admired so much in Jim Morrison (The Doors), who gives the finger to the most powerful nation on earth, not unlike anti-war activist Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, and man of principle who will pursue truth and justice no matter the consequence, qualities shared by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who challenged the Warren Commission's report on the Kennedy Assassination and who Stone elevated to hero status in JFK.
Snowden is a marked man writ large. Should he ever actually set foot back in the United States, he'll face prosecution under the Espionage Act for having provided the Guardian and other news agencies with nearly 2 million classified intelligence files from his days as an analyst with the CIA, NSA and as a private contractor for those very same agencies. Such a legal proceeding, should it ever come to pass, with the social media and Internet traffic it will generate, will make the Rosenberg trial look like a segment of Judge Judy.
For this reason, Snowden, who the very fine Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays with a quietly dialed-in moral compass and just the right geek charisma to make him the quintessential Stone protagonist, is without question one of Stone's more personal films. While looking through his lens he might have felt as if he was looking into a mirror.
Like Kovic, Snowden is portrayed, at the start, as a super patriot with a family background of military and government service. He desires a life in the Special Forces, but his frail body and hacker mind are much better suited to a life protecting the United States from terrorist threats by sitting in front of a computer.
He is a wunderkind analyst, writing code and developing programs that will gather data and capture terrorists before murderous plans move from chat rooms into drawing rooms where bombs get made. Not long into his service, however, Snowden begins to lose his patriotic zeal when he comes to believe that preventing terror is only a pretext for a larger, more pernicious clandestine agenda: spying on the American people, and foreign leaders, for reasons having nothing at all to do with the rationale and marching orders of the Patriot Act.
One of the truly inspired scenes is one in which a group of analysts tentatively begin to question their mission. The supervisor beams with a smug "just following orders" ethos, when Snowden reminds them all that the Nuremberg principles were established to offset that very thinking, and would apply as much to computer hackers as it does to a private carrying a gun.
The danger of governmental secrets and conspiracies has always been one of Stone's great obsessions, and Snowden is more than mere cautionary tale. It is, for him, the very reasons we all go to movies--to emerge from the darkness as better people.