Oliver Stone fought as a young man in Vietnam where he experienced the dark side of American society, which he came to chronicle in films ranging from Platoon, JFK, Nixon, Wall Street, the Doors, Born on the Fourth of July, W, and many others.
Snowden is Stone's latest triumph.
It chronicles the epic story of National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden (played by Joseph-Gordon Levitt) who acted on his conscience in exposing massive and illegal surveillance operations by leaking classified documents to The Guardian newspaper.
The surveillance operations angered Snowden, the film suggests, not only because of their vast scale, but also because they targeted American government allies and were designed for social control purposes rather than for legitimate national security reasons and to uphold American worldwide hegemony.
The film begins by showing the brainy Snowden as a naïve and idealistic CIA recruit in 2006 who believes in the wars waged by the Bush administration in the Middle East. After breaking his leg while training with the Special Forces, an army officer tells him he could "serve his country in many other ways," which is what he sets out to do.
Snowden's political education starts when he encounters a jaded CIA computer expert, Hank Forrester (played by Nicholas Cage), who is relegated to tinkering with antique computers because he protested unconstitutional surveillance methods. Forrester tells Snowden about how the system works, namely the role played by lobbyists and a revolving door of politicians and industry executives in keeping the so-called military industrial complex churning.
Snowden though falls under the influence of CIA executive Corbin O'Brien (named fittingly after the protagonist in George Orwell's 1984) who tells him emphatically that "Americans want security and not freedom." Snowden begins to experience doubts however after witnessing a colleague carrying out unauthorized surveillance operations targeting the family member of a potential CIA asset in Geneva, which the agency then uses for blackmailing purposes.
Later in Hawaii, Snowden realizes the NSA is monitoring him and his girl-friend, and providing targeting information used in drone strikes that may be killing many innocent people (an officer firing a drone tells he and his colleagues: "you track 'em, we whack 'em"). When ethical questions are raised at a dinner party, Snowden's boss says he was just doing his job. Snowden responds however that after the first tier Nazi leaders were tried and convicted at Nuremburg, the foot soldiers were next, and the defense of following orders was invalid.
A few days later, Snowden smuggled out a chip filled with classified material disguised in a rubik's cube, and the rest as they say is history.
Critics of Oliver Stone's films have long suggested that Stone misleads his viewers by distorting historical events and that he provides a conspiratorial view of American history.
The distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in an essay published in the 2000 book Oliver Stone's USA, edited by Robert Brent Toplin, argued that JFK and Nixon gave too much support to the notion that cabals of highly placed individuals make the decisions that broadly affect American life. Schlesinger likened Stone's views to a "paranoid style" in American politics adopted by political fringe groups on the left and right.
Historian Stephen Ambrose in the same volume expressed discomfort with Stone's reference to the "beast" in the Nixon film; a metaphor for the "darkest organic forces in American Cold War politics: the anticommunist crusade, secret intelligence, the defense industry, organized crime, big business plus the CIA." Ambrose said this is a "gross simplification of how and by whom the US is run."
Preliminary reviews of Snowden have been quite critical, with Richard Brody of the liberal New Yorker referring to Stone as "an editorialist" rather than a great political filmmaker like Clint Eastwood.
Stone responded to his critics in Oliver Stone's USA by noting that men like Ambrose and Schlesinger exhibited undue nostalgia for the past and had trouble confronting the harshness of the present. Stone said that he had great love for his country and that his movies were designed to raise points and ask questions that merit an answer or investigation.
Recent historical developments chronicled in the Snowden film in many ways vindicate Stone's position. The U.S. national security and secret intelligence and military industrial complex have grown to such gargantuan proportions, building off the Cold War precedent that even staunch conservatives have had to acknowledge the dire consequences.
Few watching the Snowden film would say Stone here has engaged in conspiracy, and many no doubt sympathize with Snowden.
Oliver Stone will be remembered as time passes I am sure as an American original whose movies helped expose the dangerous militarization of American society, political corruption and growth of a form of totalitarianism antithetical to the nation's founding creed.
Films like Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and now Snowden, have also spotlighted patriotic men of conscience who risk it all to speak truth to power and fight back against the system, and can in turn be an important source of inspiration.