This week sees the release of Snowden, the new movie from director Oliver Stone. The movie is certainly politically tinged, telling the story of an infamous NSA whistleblower who exposed the agency’s bad actions, mostly around setting up a surveillance state here in the United States. It’s hardly the first time Stone has gotten political with his filmmaking, having helmed movies like Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon and even Natural Born Killers, which envisioned a world that now looks all too familiar.
Chief among Stone’s political manifestos has to be 1991’s JFK. The movie follows the story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), who with his team conducted a full-scale investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy years prior. We follow Garrison as his search uncovers one conspiracy after another, with witnesses who are confused by the official story, suspects who don’t want to talk for fear of being killed themselves and more. It’s basically a love letter to the Baby Boomers who can’t let the 60s go, something Stone is well acquainted with.
The movie’s theatrical one-sheet literally drapes itself in the flag to remind the audience of not only the stakes – like all of this is being done to protect the country – and that this the people involved all see themselves as patriots. Seen in the falling ribbons of the flag are images of Kennedy in his motorcade shortly after being shot, the famous shot of Oswald holding a gun in his backyard and, in the center, Costner as Garrison looking out solemnly at the camera. There’s a lot of copy to the left of the poster about Garrison, stating his occupation and his motivation for carrying out the investigation into Kennedy’s death.
It’s a great design (I actually bought the one-sheet 25 years ago after it was done playing at the theater I worked at) and does a good job of presenting the movie’s core story elements, even if half of that is via small, hard-to-read copy. Mostly, it makes a striking, bold impression to the audience that immediately draws in the interest. We want to read that copy because we’re attracted by the draping flag and the images that are familiar to us in one way or the other.
The trailer, though, immerses us fully in Stone’s fever-dream of conspiracies. It’s filled with people declaring that they can’t talk to Garrison because if they did they’d be killed, people telling him that he needs to let his crusade go for his own safety, hints that his office is being bugged and others encouraging him to keep going because the real story needs to be told. It’s all very fast-paced and frantic, alluding to the style of the movie as a whole, which keeps cutting and moving the camera around as a way to create tension in the audience.
Costner is in the trailer actually very little considering he was a pretty big star in 1991, showing that the focus is more on the story than any one character. It’s also a byproduct of having such an expansive supporting cast. Shown here are John Candy, Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon and Jack Lemmon in particular, with other appearances by Donald Sutherland and a few others. It lays out the story pretty well – that Garrison is going deep with his investigation despite all kinds of warnings to leave it and the people involved alone – but portrays him, as the movie does, as a white knight who’s unafraid to stand up to the system and expose the truth despite the consequences.
What’s notable at least in these elements of the formal campaign is that Stone does not seem to be the central component as he is in the Snowdon marketing push. Sure, he’s mentioned plenty but he’s not all over the damn thing to the point of being inescapable. His sensibilities, which were evident even in 1991, certainly are but not his name.
So by comparison this is a relatively understated marketing push. Sure, Costner’s grandstanding is very much the wish fulfillment of a child of the 60s who’s looking for a true hero after decades of disillusionment but in the marketing isn’t nearly as ham-fisted as some other efforts along those same lines. It’s a bit clunky here and there but it sells the movie pretty accurately and effectively, at least as much as can be done for a 2.5 hour movie with a huge cast and a load of confusing details.