When his identity first became public in June of 2013, former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden resembled the real-life hero of a real-life Oliver Stone movie – a well-scrubbed, nerdishly handsome government opponent and champion of truth in the vein of JFK’s Jim Garrison. It seems somehow inevitable, then, that the famed whistleblower would indeed find himself the focus of a Stone-directed bio-pic, and the chief pleasures of Snowden lie in the beautiful match-up of subject matter and creative force; this truly feels like a movie Oliver Stone was born to make. Perhaps it would’ve felt like even more of one had the film not already been made – in 2014, as Laura Poitras’ exceptional documentary Citizenfour. But as unnecessary movies go, this new work is a strong and sober one, with the added benefit of revealing Joseph Gordon-Levitt to be a surprisingly uncanny mimic.
If you’re familiar with Snowden through Citizenfour or other interview footage, you may do a double take upon Gordon-Levitt’s introduction here. Physically, the actor is a fair-enough match in his hipster-geek glasses and haircut. Aurally, however, he’s astonishing. It’s not just that Gordon-Levitt nails the unaffected, serious-minded flatness of Snowden’s timbre; it’s that, like the man he’s playing, he somehow still suggests the desperate urgency behind that vocal deadpan. Even when making angry and horrified assertions about our staggering lack of personal privacy via electronic surveillance, Snowden’s volume rarely rises above what grade-school teachers would call an “inside voice.” Yet there’s so much escalating unease and barely concealed panic bubbling within Gordon-Levitt’s monotone that you’re never in doubt about the gravity of Snowden’s discoveries, or the levels of threat and danger after he chooses to make them public. Even though a great screen performance, of course, is about more than mere vocal impersonation, the watchful, wary Gordon-Levitt executes such rich and delicate channeling of Snowden’s spirit through his readings that they ultimately become the heart of Stone’s latest offering. The writer/director could’ve presented Snowden as a radio drama and the overall effect would hardly have been lessened.
That may seem like an odd, or at least unusual, statement to make given Stone’s cinematic history of flagrantly showy flourishes and manic cutting. (In the ’90s, nearly every film Stone made appeared to have been edited by a lawnmower – and a couple of them still ran over three hours.) But outside of a pair of dizzyingly imagined epileptic seizures and a thrillingly nightmarish scene of Rhys Ifans, as the ultimate Big Brother, peering over Snowden like King Kong assessing Fay Wray, Stone’s filmmaking here is subdued and impressively even-tempered. As we follow Snowden from his early CIA training to his ultimate self-banishment in Moscow – with frequent visits made to the Hong Kong hotel room of Citizenfour – Stone makes his case against government spy tactics without resorting to overwhelming visual stylization; like Snowden, he simply lets the uncovered facts speak for themselves. There are marvelously lucid explanations behind exactly how we’re being electronically monitored and (theoretically) to what purpose, and they’re made all the more upsetting because Stone, showing welcome tact in his script co-written with Kieran Fitzgerald, has no need to over-sell them the way he did, say, detailing the inconsistencies behind the magic bullet. The movie is chilling precisely because of how unadorned it is. After Snowden learns that a laptop camera can still serve as functional spyware even when that little red light isn’t glowing, all it takes is the reflection of our hero and his girlfriend having sex in front of her “turned off” computer to shudder at the thoroughness, and terrifying ease, of our collective loss of privacy.
As good as it is, Snowden, unfortunately, never quite reaches the level of great. Despite the reams of talent employed – Melissa Leo, Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Zachary Quinto – the only member of the supporting cast given much to do is Shailene Woodley as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, and she’s unfortunately stuck playing the obligatory great-man’s-spouse notes of worry, solidarity, and peevishness in a seemingly eternal loop. (God knows Woodley is more welcome than Sissy Spacek in JFK, but a bout of malaria is also more welcome than Sissy Spacek in JFK.) And the film isn’t helped by arriving so closely on the heels of Citizenfour, as Poitras’ Oscar winner still stands as the more gripping, frightening, and exhaustive of the two. Yet Stone’s smart and thoughtful entertainment is still a terrifically unsettling time, and feels like an earned one for its famously conspiracy-minded maker. Just because you’re paranoid, after all, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
For a movie so beholden to its inspiration, director Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch feels like a pretty blatant middle finger to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. “Only three young people lost in the woods?! We’ve got six! Only two clunky video cameras recording everything?! We’ve got, like, a million! GoPros and cell phones and camcorders – hell, we’ve even got a camera fixed on a drone! Twigs snapping in the distance?! We’ve got freaking sonic booms! No blood?! We’ve got buckets! Black-and-white?! We’re in living color, bitches!!!” But as much as I wanted to react to this horror sequel/reboot with the world-weary testiness of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man or Clint Eastwood’s anybody, I didn’t have to, because we old-timers and our fond, 20th Century memories of Heather, Mike, and Josh win in the end: Unlike The Blair Witch Project, the new Blair Witch isn’t the least bit scary. It’s certainly obnoxious, given all the crummy attempts at naturalistic “found footage” acting, and it’s certainly tiresome, given how this purported update follows the narrative blueprint of the original almost scene for scene, and sometimes even shot for shot. (There were boos in my auditorium when the film ended precisely the way you imagine it will and pray it won’t.) Frightening, however, the movie isn’t, with the first couple of loud blasts on the soundtrack totally inuring you to the next several dozen, and the disturbing 1999 images – stick-figure totems, piles of rocks, guys standing in the corner – hauled out strictly for nostalgic purposes, not because Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett thought to do anything fresh with them. Their outing may have lost its “Project,” but it also lost any conceivable reason for existing aside from offering a definitive answer to that age-old philosophical question: “If a bunch of Blair Witch trees fall in the forest, does anyone give a damn?”
BRIDGET JONES’S BABY
And speaking of not giving a damn … .
As unconscionably late sequels to graying rom-coms go, director Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Baby is at least an easier sit than this past spring’s wretched My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. It’s unexpectedly touching to see Renée Zellweger back in her signature role as a foul-mouthed, accident-prone, British ne’er-do-well; there are welcome returns by the likes of Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, and Shirley Henderson; and I’ve always had a soft spot for Colin Firth as Bridget’s stiff-upper-lipped love Mark Darcy. (Firth is so unflappably deadpan that on the rare instances when Darcy grins, it’s practically a multi-million-dollar special effect.) But, God, couldn’t we have been given something more sustainable than a feature-length game of “Who’s Bridget’s baby daddy?” considering (a) the narrative exists only because Bridget freaks out at the size of the amnio needle, and (b) the outcome is never in doubt given that Firth’s romantic rival is Patrick Dempsey, who’s like what you’d get if you put a half-beard on a vanilla ice-cream cone? Add to the uninspired predictability of it all the lazy slapstick, obvious gags, tired subplots, and grating musical cues (I wasn’t the only one who groaned when Darcy carried Bridget to the hospital to the strains of “Up Where We Belong”) and this follow-up merits its few smiles only from its non-Dempsey performers. Agni Scot is fun as the randy host of producer Bridget’s TV-news program. Emma Thompson is a sardonic delight as Bridget’s understandably confused obstetrician. And Kate O’Flynn nearly steals what little of the movie there is to steal as Bridget’s boss, a grim-faced millennial who keeps threatening that if segments get boring, she’s going to instead run videos of cats that look like Hitler. After two hours of Bridget Jones’s Baby, Hitler cats sounded like blessed relief.