What is Oliver Stone hiding? Specifically, what is in those extra four minutes of his Edward Snowden bio-pic that will be released in Russian theaters, but he wants to keep secret from Americans? After all, Thursday’s special Fathom Events screening would have been a perfect venue to screen the additional footage, but there was absolutely no mention of the “missing four minutes.” Maybe he treats Russians to a shirtless Vladimir Putin wrestling a bear or perhaps Snowden admits homosexuality is caused by a virus created by the CIA. Whatever it is, Stone clearly hopes to keep it under wraps. However, there is no question he set out to promote the Snowden narrative with the redacted Snowden (trailer here), which opens today in New York.
It is a shame Stone so thoroughly aligned himself with Snowden’s boosters, because there is dramatic hay to be made from his moral ambiguities. Instead of a flawed Shakespearean figure (who maybe forged a Faustian bargain with his hosts), Stone gives us hagiography. This is St. Snowden’s confession, albeit considerably humanized through Stone’s surprising focus on Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay Mills, his Heloise (to mix early Christian theologian metaphors).
Stone also finds himself in the awkward position of dramatizing the in/famous scenes in the Hong Kong hotel room that most of the target audience for Snowden has already seen for real in Citizenfour. Yet, he is sort of stuck with them, so Stone rather shrewdly uses it more an in media res launching pad for Snowden’s biographical flashbacks. We see the patriotic computer geek who was too scrawny to cut it in the Special Forces find his calling in the CIA instead. Just as he dazzles his recruiter Corbin O’Brian (who apparently has oversight responsibility for all U.S. electronic intelligence gathering, in addition to interviewing entry level recruits), Snowden begins a romance with Mills, whom he met through a nerd-culture online dating site.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley really develop some compelling chemistry together as Snowden and Mills, even though the ten-year age difference between them (per imdb) looks more than twice that. Arguably, what is most compelling about the film is the way it captures the corrosive effect of secrets (and the stress that inevitably comes with them) on a previously healthy relationship. Ironically, this is also the film that also argues everyone needs to keep part of themselves secret and hidden from public view to maintain who we are, but Kieran Fitzgerald’s screenplay (co-written with Stone) somehow makes these themes sound complimentary rather than contradictory.
Like Laura Poitras (here played by Melissa Leo) in Citizenfour, Stone somewhat perversely chooses to personalize the issue of NSA surveillance and metadata collection. According to both films, you are either Team Snowden all the way or you support Big Brother freely rummaging through our email and cell phone data. Most people are somewhere in the middle. They are alarmed by Snowden’s revelations but also concerned about the national security implications of his document dumps. There have been dramatically differing accounts of what information he supplied to the Chinese and even his assurances he deleted all his classified files before his long Russian detour are true, most analysts believe he has plenty in his head to substantially compromise U.S. intelligence gathering. “Trust me” might be enough for Stone and Poitras, but it isn’t for most Americans.
That is why it is so frustrating Stone refuses to embrace the ambiguity of Snowden. Far from undermining the drama, a more conflicted and flawed Snowden would be more human and relatable. Call us suspicious, but the earnest martyr we are being marketed smells a little bogus—but that should not be interpreted as an endorsement of indiscriminate NSA data collection. (By a similar token, the Snowden cause was not helped by the presence of the U.S. Communist Party prospecting for new members in front on the AMC Loews hosting Fathom’s Thursday Q&A with Stone in-person and Snowden via satellite.)