The most dynamic scene of Oliver Stone’s film career—certainly the most electrifyingly bonkers speech he’s ever shot—came in 1991’s JFK. “It’s as old as the crucifixion, a military firing squad,” Donald Sutherland rants, laying out the conspiratorial case for the military-industrial complex assassinating the president. Cutting between Sutherland’s minutes-long monologue and sterling black-and-white footage of generals meeting in smoke-filled rooms, the sequence is a bravura display of paranoid filmmaking; the kind of work that means Stone is still being approached to make movies like Snowden, another tale of conspiracy at the heart of government in theaters this week. So it’s strange that his latest feature feels so devoid of both passion and paranoia.
Snowden is probably the most competent film Stone has made in a decade. It does a perfectly serviceable job retelling the story of Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who leaked classified information about global surveillance programs and sparked an international conversation about government access to information in a digital age. But if you want a deep dive into the Snowden case, there’s already Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s Academy Award-winning documentary that rigorously lays out the Snowden story. The substantial, proven details that drive the story of Snowden—the fact that the government can and has been spying on people through their cameras, phones, and computers for years—should be the spark to light Stone’s touchpaper. Instead, he’s delivered a solid, watchable biopic that utterly lacks the over-the-top flourishes that once made his films so compelling.