SPYING ON THE TRUTH
Edward Snowden did what no other person would do – expose the government. Now Oliver Stone has taken on his complex story
Oliver Stone had no desire to make a movie about Edward Snowden. That might seem surprising for a man who has tackled everything from the Vietnam War to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in his 40-some years as a filmmaker. Wasn’t Stone tailor-made for the story of the NSA whistleblower?
Perhaps, but he’d been burned a few too many times lately. There was the Martin Luther King, Jr. movie that fell apart and the My Lai movie, too. Plus he really didn’t want to do “a computer movie”.
“You stay away from hot current topics because they change, the winds change, something changes, a new person comes out of the woodwork, lawsuits,” Stone says in an interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the title character in Snowden. “It’s just a nightmare to do a living person.”
And yet, somehow, Stone found himself in Moscow with his longtime producing partner, Moritz Borman, Snowden, and Snowden’s Russian lawyer talking about just that.
“I was wary of the movie and (Snowden) was wary of a movie,” Stone says.
In fact, Stone was considering making something entirely fictional. Snowden’s lawyer had written a “Dostoyevsky-like” novel inspired by the ordeal that was on the table. Stone had also thought about a version where the character is chased in Russia, like “a Bourne Identity”, something where he goes back to hide in the US, or maybe even a James Bond- type story.
“The reality of course is much stiffer. There are no guns, there are no chases, there’s no violence in the movie, and a typical coder at the NSA is not that interesting,” Stone says.
He grappled with questions about how to make it exciting – “a movie as opposed to a documentary”.
Still, in the end, he decided to stay small, and make a more realistic “dramatic interpretation” of Snowden’s 10-year journey from soldier to the man who leaked thousands of classified documents exposing the government’s mass surveillance of private citizens. Snowden is also told in parallel with that pivotal 2013 meeting in Hong Kong with Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill and documentarian Laura Poitras, which was chronicled in the Oscarwinning Citizenfour.
Stone had “enormous problems” financing the movie. The major studios shied away from it, and he had to cobble together money from France and Germany. He also got a lifeline from Open Road Films, the independent company behind last year’s best picture winner Spotlight.
The silver lining was that Stone had the support of Snowden himself. That ended up being pivotal to GordonLevitt, who took on the challenge of disappearing into the title role. Snowden is even out promoting the film from his exile in Moscow.
“I don’t think anybody looks forward to having a movie made about themselves, particularly someone who is a privacy advocate,” Snowden told an audience via live Google Hangout in July, but said that there was a “kind of magic” to the film and its potential ability to reach a large audience through storytelling. “It was something that made me really nervous but I think it worked.”
For Gordon-Levitt, the film gives the Snowden story an emotional depth that he believes can be particularly resonant to the masses.
“You understand why as a human being he decided to do what he did. That’s really a great entre into understanding what all is going on,” GordonLevitt says. “Hopefully it will inspire people to think about it themselves.”
Gordon-Levitt and Stone are in some ways polar opposites – Stone being the conspiracy theorist filmmaker of our time, and Gordon-Levitt as the brainchild of the unwaveringly positive open source production company HitRecord.
Still, Gordon-Levitt recognises Stone’s unique drive to tackle subjects others might think too nuclear.
“Oliver is the only one who could have made this movie,” he says. “He’s the only filmmaker who is willing to say: ‘I love my country but this thing that the government is doing isn’t right and we should look at it.’ No one else does that as pointedly and courageously as Oliver does.” Snowden opens today
Snowden says we are “building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind” – the mining of personal data.