There’s a moment in Nixon—a great, misunderstood, boisterous howler—where Oliver Stone tips his hand. It lasts only a few seconds and occurs just before that movie’s best sequence. In one of many flashbacks, a twenty-something Dick (played by David Barry Gray) is mourning the loss of his older brother—a Joe Kennedy, Jr. type whose premature death inflicts a wound that’ll never heal. But his mother, a fire-and-brimstone Quaker, scolds him for weeping: pain in this life, peace in the next. The whole thing is shot in crisp black and white. And just as Dick’s resolve strengthens, the young man’s face dissolves into the old. David Gray melts into Anthony Hopkins. It’s silent, in color. Nixon’s expression is inscrutable, somewhere between anger, confusion, regret, depression, and paranoia. The light on him is scorching, and the camera pulls back to reveal an inky void. Suddenly, a gigantic grin comes across his face, the background brightens in a flash, and a cheering crowd appears out of thin air.
Thunderous applause and blaring horns pour onto the soundtrack. Amid the applause, Nixon throws his arms into the air and shakes dual V-for-victory fists in that famously (and characteristically) awkward gesture. A title card sets the scene: August 8, 1968. Nixon is accepting the Republican nomination in Miami. Just as he turns his back to greet wife Pat, Stone cuts to stock footage recorded at the convention. We’re at the back of the stage; we see the entire convention floor. And for a few seconds, from a distance, the real Richard Nixon stars in his own biography.
Anthony Hopkins looks nothing like Richard Nixon. His head and body are too round, he doesn’t have the sagging jowls, and the widow’s peak is clearly a hairpiece. He’s buried under a heap of makeup, prosthetics, and an absurd accent. Elsewhere, haircuts on top of famous heads round out the cast. James Woods and Ed Harris look nothing like H. R. Haldeman and E. Howard Hunt, but their personas—the summation of their previous roles and performances—fill in the blanks and suggest the real-life figures. It’s an SNL version of history where impression and posture convey more meaning than events; pesky details like what actually happened are less important than reenactment and doubling.
That moment in Nixon encapsulates Stone’s approach to reality and fiction. His movies’ bogus insinuations—the 18½-minute gap in the Watergate tapes held vital information about the Kennedy assassination, for example—are more theatrical than insightful; their outrageousness is an effect of their design. Stone’s movies aren’t alternate histories of American politics; they’re alternate histories of the movies, one where the mainstream and the experimental, fiction and documentary, biography and genre pulp all overlap. They’re fever-dream, multiplex fantasies.
So when Snowden opens with Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto playing Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald in the moments just before recording the first shot of Citizenfour, one gets the sense that Stone is through the metatextual looking glass. Snowden repurposes Poitras’s documentary as exhibit A in his case that the YouTube age is a hall-of-mirrors nightmare where the line between performance and spectatorship is impossibly indistinct. A 21st century infrastructure built of lenses, screens, and webcams is best engaged using the tools of visual storytelling.
That doesn’t mean Snowden nails much about Edward Snowden. As a biographer, Oliver Stone is a poor resource; his attempt to contextualize Richard Nixon somehow became something like Disney’s Hall of Presidents as written by Richard Wagner. In reality, Snowden has insisted that he not be the subject of the conversation—that we not be distracted from the message by the messenger. Next to the weight of his revelations, he’s a slight enough figure that the conversation has mostly remained on point. But Stone’s emphasis remains squarely on the man. He’s too sympathetic and identifies too much with his subject—patriotism motivated both to enlist in the armed forces before their beliefs ossified into disillusionment—that his Snowden is impossibly righteous. (Joseph Gordon-Levitt nails Snowden’s over-confident composure and articulate, nerdy baritone.) As with Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, Stone modifies biography to shape a leftist bildungsroman. Snowden begins his career quoting Ayn Rand and ends with an unequivocal endorsement of Bernie Sanders.
But Stone isn’t an issue person. He’s well-meaning, but careless with facts, didactic, and easily distracted. His true talent lies in his filmmaking gifts—his pseudo-experimental conflation of the avant-garde and the mainstream. His stylistic verve is so convincing that JFK can remain engaging despite its absurd homophobia. That movie turned the ’60s counterculture narrative into The Parallax View, while Nixon turned its subject’s administration into hysterical, haunted-house camp. Snowden doesn’t quite reach the paranoid, operatic heights of those two, but the metatextal acrobatics are head-spinning. It suggests The Bourne Identity by way of Brian De Palma on amphetamines. If Nixon was performing for himself—those tapes were for his own consumption—Snowden implicates the audience in the performance. In the age of YouTube, we’re all peeping toms.
Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Melissa Leo, and Zachary Quinto. Opens in Kansas City September 16, 2016.