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Edward Snowden is a great Oliver Stone protagonist, but Snowden is a terrible Oliver Stone movie

The filmmaker’s latest work is a major disappointment. A look back at his career shows why.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s disappointing new film.
Open Road Films

The story of Edward Snowden seems tailor-made for Oliver Stone.

The filmmaker is American cinema’s foremost critic of American imperialism, a brutal satirist, and a harsh judge of the country’s government, its media, its culture, and its economy. Stone’s movies tend to insist that exposing the ugly, hidden truth about the nation and its past is the most — even the only — patriotic thing a person can do.

Snowden, the former CIA employee and NSA contractor whose leaks exposed the government’s mass surveillance programs, is the real-life embodiment of all of the essential Oliver Stone values: He’s an individual who followed his conscience, exposed secret information, and was cast out from his own society as a result.

These are the sorts of characters and stories that have always attracted Stone, the outsiders and madmen who follow their own path, no matter the cost, and who expose the seedy underbelly of society in the process.

In other words, Stone has spent a lot of his life making movies about people who are a lot like Oliver Stone.

As critic Matt Zoller Seitz writes in his expansive and excellent new book on the director, The Oliver Stone Experience:

“There is a sense in which Oliver’s characters all start to seem like extensions of Oliver Stone, the Cassandra of popular culture, warning us of impending disaster by way of fire-and-brimstone screenplays and hallucinatory visuals that shake our complacency and make us question our responses to his art, and ask how much of that response is genuine and how much is a vestige of conditioning.”

Go back and watch Stone’s best work from his peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it’s hard not to see him as a kind of doomed prophet — half crazy, half genius, an extraordinary filmmaker who used his gifts to assail nearly every aspect of the American myth.

Platoon, Salvador, and images of American conflict

Stone bummed around Hollywood throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, working mostly as a screenwriter, penning the scripts for films like Midnight Express, Conan the Barbarian, and Brian De Palma’s Scarface. Those works laid the foundation for many of Stone’s recurring interests as a filmmaker: violence and iconography, myth-making and myth-busting, driven antiheroes whose lives expose the hypocrisy of their enemies. Stone wrote popular films that challenged popular ideas.

But it wasn’t until 1986 that Stone really came into his own. That year saw the release of Platoon, which Stone both wrote and directed. The film served as an implicit rebuke to the rah-rah heroism of Reagan-era action movies that glorified America’s global military interventions, and as a direct response to the Vietnam revisionism that was gaining cultural traction at the time, which floated the idea that the war could have been won if only America would have been more committed.

Platoon was very much in conversation with America’s self-image, but it wasn’t an argument in movie form. Instead, it drew its power from its stark, specific, deeply haunting depiction of the boredom and terror of life as a grunt in Vietnam, which was based heavily on Stone’s own service in the war. It was a brilliant bummer of a movie — and critics and viewers ate it up. Platoon won the Academy Award for Best Picture while raking in more than $138 million in the box office on a $6 million production budget.

Platoon wasn’t the only Stone film to hit theaters that year. February of that year saw the release of Salvador, which Stone also wrote and directed. The movie starred a lanky, antic James Woods as Richard Boyle, a sleazy lout of a journalist who travels to El Salvador to report on the civil conflict in the early 1980s, and was as overlooked as Platoon was widely praised. Produced for $4.5 million, the movie barely made it into theaters and grossed just $1.5 million.

James Woods plays a sleazy journalist covering the El Salvadorian conflict in Salvador.
High-Def Digest

It’s not too hard to see why audiences might not have taken to this one the way they took to Platoon: Its hero is a sleazy, borderline amoral hustler — a “weasel,” as he calls himself at one point — whose commitment to journalism is as much about personal advancement as truth-telling. The film’s unflinching violence is horrifying rather than exciting; it includes realistic war violence, multiple street executions, and scenes in which Woods’s character climbs mountains of dead bodies.

Salvador’s portrayal of America’s involvement in the conflict is, if anything, even bleaker than the one in Platoon, suggesting a dangerous and self-satisfied complicity between the military, intelligence operatives, and the media. Overall, it takes a complicated view of war and politics in which there are no good guys, only bad and worse.

And yet it also boasts a manic, almost frantic intensity, an angry, edgy energy that the comparatively somber, righteous Platoon cannot match. It’s Platoon’s rougher, rawer, more aggressive, more caustic B-side — and of the two, it’s the film I prefer.

Wall Street and the clash of idealism and cynicism

Platoon launched Stone’s career as a director, and he followed it with a series of similarly ferocious eviscerations of America’s self-image. The late ’80s saw Stone films like Born on the Fourth of July, which returned to the subject of Vietnam and the question of war’s effect on individuals soldiers; Talk Radio, a play-like production about an early shock jock; and Wall Street, a dramatic thriller set in the world of high finance that brought together Stone’s hatred of Reagan-era yuppies and his distrust of capitalism.

Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox and Michael Douglas as Gordon “Greed Is Good” Gekko in Wall Street.
Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox and Michael Douglas as Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko in Wall Street.
20th Century Fox

Wall Street in particular showed Stone’s gifts as a dramatist: There’s no question that it was a harsh critique of America’s financial elites and its economic system, and yet it recognized the genuine allure of that system and its most powerful players. The movie’s villain, corporate titan Gordon Gekko (a stirring, swaggering Michael Douglas) — whose defining moment was a monologue expounding on the virtues of greed — was compelling enough that he became an icon to a generation of financial-firm workers. Stone had a point of view, but he also let the characters have their own fully formed views about the world — to the point where the villain became, for some, the hero.

Like Platoon, those films mixed cynicism with idealism, gripping personal narrative with broader social critique, and they played it essentially straight with viewers, telling their stories with cinematic verve, but in an essentially classic style. They were passionate, but relatively restrained.

JFK, Natural Born Killers, and edgy agitation

In the 1990s, that would change, as Stone began to experiment with rapid-fire editing techniques, oddball camera angles, and multiple film stocks, to incredibly powerful effect. In JFK, Stone took on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the mish-mash of techniques conjured up the feverish conspiracy theories that swirled around the president’s death, allowing viewers to experience, by cinematic proxy, the heated confusion about what actually happened. Much of the movie’s history was conspiratorial gibberish, but it was — and remains — a masterwork of bravura editing.

In Natural Born Killers, Stone took those experimental techniques even further: The movie is essentially a two-hour montage, a gory, epic music video shot in drunken, whooshing takes and jumbled together into a hectic, ultra-violent nightmare of a movie. The film takes viewers inside the warped and altogether unstable perspective of two murderous psychopaths — the lover/killer duo Mickey and Mallory — and, by extension, the violent id of American culture and media, as the pair become heroes, worshipped by fans and celebrated on television.

On release, the movie was criticized for its gratuitous violence, a complaint that entirely misses the point. Everything about the movie, including and especially the violence, is gratuitously over-the-top; it often feels like a satire of violent over-the-topness, an addled and morally empty state of being toward which Natural Born Killers seemed to suggest the American psyche was increasingly inclined.

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis play psychopathic couple Mickey and Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers.
Warner Bros.

At the same time, Natural Born Killers was more than a little deranged, an unruly and off-kilter film that, to an even greater extent than JFK, seemed designed to set viewers on edge. There’s an agitation to both films, a wild edge that brings to mind Woods’s journalist from Salvador. Both films were designed, in their own ways, to capture America’s maniacal tendencies — the reality show in Killers is called American Maniacs — but both ended up revealing more than a little of Stone’s.

Snowden and Stone’s legacy

Stone followed Natural Born Killers with the very good Nixon, another portrait of an American icon, and then went on to make a handful of sometimes interesting but lesser films — the bonkers genre flicks U-Turn and Savages, the football exposé Any Given Sunday, the Bush-biopic W., the respectful 9/11 drama World Trade Center. But it was that period from the late ’80s through the mid-’90s that continued to define him and his work, even to himself.

In The Oliver Stone Experience, Zoller Seitz notes that Stone would eventually become disappointed that his movies didn’t have a bigger impact on American culture and foreign policy, that the US still ended up in ill-considered wars in Iraq and elsewhere. Yet what makes those movies so important and powerful, what makes them last, isn’t their political impact — it’s that they are great movies, period. You don’t have to agree with them, or with Oliver Stone, to recognize their cinematic strengths. The work stands on its own.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Edward Snowden
Snowden feels like it’s intended to make a powerful statement rather than tell a great story.
Open Road Films

That’s why Snowden is such a disappointment. It’s an ungainly, overlong film, dull and preachy, with embarrassing dialogue and too many monologues — and I say that as someone who thinks that Snowden's revelations brought important and much-needed transparency to worrisomely broad and unchecked surveillance practices.

Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald, tries to amp up the tension and drama by concocting a variety of cliched spy-thriller elements that didn’t happen, and fails to find the suspense in what actually occurred. The pacing is slow, and even the image quality is surprisingly poor: It looks more like a TV movie than a feature film.

It’s a movie that feels like it’s intended to make a powerful statement rather than tell a great story. Stone’s best movies, in contrast, told great stories that end up making powerful statements. Edward Snowden is, or at least should be, a great Oliver Stone protagonist, but Snowden is a terrible Oliver Stone movie.