The Good and Bad Timing of Oliver Stone’s Snowden

By  · Published on July 26th, 2016

A new trailer for the biopic feels both dated and timely.

Over the weekend, situated between two American political party conventions, fans escaped to San Diego to celebrate their fictional heroes. Among the presentations of comic books, movies, and TV shows about uncanny and impossible characters was a promotion of a biopic, a film based on the true story of real-life figure Edward Snowden. Many think he’s a hero, many think he’s a villain. Either way, Comic-Con was a strange place to find Oliver Stone and his new feature about the guy, titled Snowden.

The showcase of the movie, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role, was actually on Thursday, as the Republican National Convention was coming to a close. Neither Stone nor Snowden, who made a kind of appearance via satellite, are supportive of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton (Stone was for Bernie Sanders and is presumably still not “with her”). So, it was fitting for them to take part in a different convention off to the side and mostly smack in the middle, time-wise, and debut a new trailer.

A few days after the Comic-Con event, yet another sign that we’re headed for the dark ages regarding personal privacy arose with the leak of Democratic National Committee emails, possibly hacked by Russia, current home of Snowden. Although unrelated to the work he did to receive scorn from both sides of the aisle, he certainly has things to say about it. It’s different but still relevant. Both the NSA spying that Snowden blew the whistle on and such cyber espionage and attacks as what occurred over the weekend are part of a new era of tensions, the likes of which make the domestic heat put on Americans by McCarthyism and Hoover’s FBI and the foreign threats of nuclear weapons seem primitive by comparison.

Without going too far down the path of doomsday prophecy, let me recommend another new film that, without my seeing Snowden yet, seems much more pressing at the moment: Zero Days. Directed by Alex Gibney (who previously made a documentary on WikiLeaks publicly criticized by Stone), it’s a look at cyber-warfare conducted against Iran by, unofficially, the US and Israel, through a program begun a decade ago and which crosses over presidential administrations, and therefore party lines. And yes, Snowden has commented on the main focus of the doc, the Stuxnet Virus.

Zero Days is a heady feature, but it can’t be ignored even if it’s likely that the dense computer virus talk may go over your head. The main points of the doc, which is more a detective film than lecture, are easily understood and enlightening and frightening. On the surface, it’s a cyber thriller not unlike the sort Hollywood makes, only its jargon and its issues and its international plots to destroy nuclear facilities and who knows what else in the future is very real. Zero Days is actually is like a Bourne movie without the punching.

Zero Days (2016) Documentary Review

Of course, we have a new one of those movies arriving this week, too. Jason Bourne, as the fifth installment is called, is the first of the series released and set in a “post-Snowden world,” which star Matt Damon has been admitting was the inspiration for his and director Paul Greengrass’s return with the character. The first trailer reveals its plot involves some sort of US government hack, said to possibly “be worse than Snowden.” Interestingly enough, Stone’s movie has also been likened to a Bourne movie. It could be seen as a full circle, but there is that hint that Jason Bourne is going forward (i.e. “worse”) with the idea while Snowden could be stuck in the past.

The feeling that Stone’s biopic is a little late to the party is primarily because it’s basically a remake of a film that premiered two years earlier. Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, which went on to win the Oscar for best feature documentary, is such an integral part of the Snowden story, in fact, that it’s impossible for Stone’s movie to not feature Poitras, and Citizenfour’s featured print journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen McAskill, as major characters. It will likely have more to show and say, but right now it just looks like a lot of reenactment of existing material with some illustrative supplements.

NYFF 2014: Incendiary, Essential ‘Citizenfour’ Illuminates Both Old and New Aspects of Edward…

It’s not that Snowden is altogether old news, but he’s also not necessarily a subject that audiences need or want to watch in a dramatic copy of something just seen fairly recently. Is his story important for the multiplex crowd of 2016? Or is he now merely a piece of a greater discourse? Also, Stone’s film is being sold as extremely hagiographic, literally with its soundtrack labeling its subject a saint. Citizenfour shows the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Snowden is going to show the woo-hoo.

Would Snowden have been better off saved for decades down the line when Stone could present it more as a historical piece? Or will it be closer to his underrated Salvador than JFK in its astonishing immediacy? “You get beat up when it’s current,” Stone acknowledged at Comic-Con of the turnaround of this narrative. “This story’s not over yet.” The thing is, the story is not just continuing but it’s continuing all around. In nonfiction films and summer blockbusters and life. Stone and Snowden’s fans just need to keep up.

Rent Zero Days now and stream via Amazon Video

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.