Snowden- Is Oliver Stone’s Biopic Going to Whistle Blow the Oscar Race Wide Open? (Editorial)

The first teaser trailer for Oliver Stone’s highly anticipated drama Snowden was released today, showing very little, with text about whistle blower Edward Snowden’s life interspersed with a close-up of an upside down American flag. This teaser doesn’t show any footage of the film or actors, it really does set the mood, as accompanied by a haunting rendition of ‘This Little Light of Mine’. It recalls the teaser trailer of David Fincher’s masterpiece The Social Network, which was accompanied by a similarly slowed down version of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. But Snowden shows even less than The Social Network‘s; there is no dialogue, no images of the cast or any footage from the film whatsoever, a teaser trailer that genuinely teases for more, making it one of my most anticipated films of the year, and I’m extremely excited for it’s Christmas release.

However, is Snowden the kind of film that is going to resonate with the Academy? The signs are definitely there: they love Oliver Stone, a winner for Best Director twice, for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. They are obviously interested in the subject matter, with Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour winning Best Documentary Feature in February. They are fans of the cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt has appeared in 2 Best Picture nominees (Inception and Lincoln), Shailene Woodley has been in a Best Picture nominee (The Descendants), Melissa Leo is a previous Oscar winner for Best Picture nominee The Fighter (she was also nominated for Frozen River), Tom Wilkinson has received two Oscar nominations, for In the Bedroom and Michael Clayton, and appearing in 8 Best Picture nominees (In the Name of the Father, Sense and Sensibility, The Full Monty, Shakespeare in Love, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Selma, alongside the aforementioned that he was nominated for), and Nicolas Cage, a previous Oscar winner for Leaving Las Vegas and nominee for Adaptation.

Then why isn’t Snowden an Oscar frontrunner? According to (, Snowden in 27th in the Best Picture race, surprisingly low for a baity biopic released on Christmas day with an Oscar winning director at the helm. It’s even lower than star Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s other film, The Walk, in which he plays Philippe Petit for Oscar winning director Robert Zemeckis, something that could cancel out his chances in the Best Actor race because of a split vote, something that could also effect Michael Fassbender (Macbeth and Steve Jobs) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Southpaw and Demolition). Could this all be to do with the controversial subject matter, with America divided on whether Snowden is a hero or a villain. If Stone focuses on one point of view more heavily than the other, then he could lose a percentage of the vote. This is something that crippled the Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate, a film about Wikileaks that wasn’t sure if Wikileaks was a good or a bad thing. It also didn’t help that it didn’t get Assange’s backing, with Assange famously e-mailing Benedict Cumberbatch, encouraging him to not play him. If Snowden does get Edward Snowden’s backing will it be a good thing or a bad thing? If it did, then the direction that the film was made in would be clear, to portray Snowden as a hero. If it didn’t, then it would lose important backing, as Laura Poitras (played in the film by Melissa Leo), Glenn Greenwald (played by Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill (played by Tom Wilkinson), would probably follow suit, a fatal blow as endorsement from subjects can definitely improve a biopic’s success (see The Theory of Everything as an example).

Overall, what Snowden needs to do is to emulate the success of The Social Network, as it is the only film to cover a controversial internet based subject with enough care that managed to make a film about the 21st century age of technology for the 21st century audience. If Stone avoids the mistakes he made in the mistimed W. and Alexander, and engage with his analytical side that he showed in JFK and Nixon, then Snowden will be a success. It’s a film that is going to be controversial, much talked about and get good box office figures. But can it make a dent this awards season? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.


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