Full disclosure in Oliver Stone's new film about CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley in Snowden, based on the life of Edward Snowden

Oliver Stone’s new film aims to show the human side of CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden, writes Helen Barlow

Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour may have brought us up close to Edward Snowden, as he launched his revelations regarding US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance in June 2013.

Yet we hardly got a sense of the 29- year-old American, who was prepared to risk it all, including leaving behind his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, and ultimately live in exile in Russia.

Oliver Stone, in his new movie Snowden, was intent on showing us the man behind the public personae and the extent of the whistle-blower’s genius. The 70-year-old director delves into the motivations of the young American who dropped out of Army training with a severe injury, joined the CIA and left, and then in his ensuing work as a private contractor for the NSA witnessed programmes he wrote being used in the surveillance of private citizens.

“I went to Moscow to meet Ed in January 2014 and we deepened our conversation over the next months,” Stone recalls. “I returned twice and when my co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald and I realised Ed was co-operating, we started working on the script. Getting inside this story was very exciting, but we still hadn’t worked out how to do it. It was complicated, with a lot of technical information, and we realised little was known about his relationship with Lindsay Mills [played by Shailene Woodley] who becomes an important factor in our story. I ended up going back nine times.”

The ensuing film is a kind of ticking clock drama framed around the pushing of the computer button in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), journalist and collaborator Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Poitras (Melissa Leo) are all aware that afterwards the world, as well as their lives, will never be the same. In multiple flashbacks we see Snowden’s life leading up to this moment.

Stone compares Snowden to Ron Kovic, the Vietnam vet played by Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, which won Stone an Oscar for best director and Tom Cruise his first best actor nomination.

“Ron Kovic was from Long Island. He was a very patriotic small town boy, who turned around after what he saw in Vietnam and became a tremendous opponent of the war.”

What sets Snowden apart as a movie character is that he is still active and hugely vocal. His commentary is in fact prolific on issues including the tallying the votes of the American election and the plight of refugees.

Youthful 35-year-old Gordon-Levitt knew what it was like to play a real life man having just starred as Philippe Petit in The Walk. Yet embodying a politically divisive character like Snowden proved a very different challenge. That he knew little about the man proved an advantage, and in the publicity rounds Stone liked that his actor could provide the view of the general cinemagoer Stone was aiming for.

“I have to admit in 2013 when it first happened I really didn’t pay much attention,” Gordon-Levitt admits. “It wasn’t until a year later when Oliver offered me this job and I remember feeling very excited because I’m such a fan of his movies, that I realised I didn’t know any of the specifics. You hear so much news and rarely take the time to look at things in depth. So I had a lot of learning to do.”

While Stone was naturally aware of the events he knew little of the man. After his numerous visits to Moscow he says he found Snowden to be “very impressive, very articulate — as you know — and thoughtful and resilient. He’s been able to deal with exile very calmly and is hardworking as always.”

By the time Gordon-Levitt travelled to Moscow, Mills had joined Snowden, making him a much happier man, notes Stone. The director had initially been in the room when the actor met the man he would play. When talk immediately turned to current affairs and politics Stone insisted they focus on more personal details.

“The value of meeting Ed face to face was in getting to observe those little nuances, how he walks, talks and eats, how he shakes your hand,” Gordon-Levitt notes. “Given the stereotype that people who are good on computers are socially awkward, I was half expecting that of him. But it turned out not to be the case. He’s quite old fashioned in a way. He’s from North Carolina where they put a lot of emphasis on good manners, certainly moreso than where I’m from in southern California. He really was a very graceful gentleman.”

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone

So is Snowden a hero or traitor? “I wouldn’t tell anyone to take my word for it,” Gordon-Levitt responds. “It’s a complicated story and I think a lot of people oversimplify it. My personal opinion is I understand why people call him a criminal because he broke the laws when he took classified documents and delivered them to journalists. But the NSA was breaking the law and they were doing it all the time.

“One of the stories that really sucked me in was the Congressional hearing that took place a few months before I started the film when the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, got up on the stand and swore to tell the truth. He was asked if the NSA was collecting records on American citizens and he said no. It was an outright lie and no one could prove it until Snowden proved it.”

James Clapper has resigned his position though will stay on until the end of the Obama administration. Obama has introduced safeguards for personal data unless it conflicts with national security — though refuses to consider granting Snowden a presidential pardon unless he goes before the US courts.

In part because of the stark division of opinion, Stone had failed to find backers for his film in the US. Financing came late in the day from France and Germany, with the film being shot as a German production in Germany.

The 70-year-old director travelled extensively to promote the film and a week before the US election he spoke at the Los Cabos International Film Festival for the Mexican premiere.

“Everybody is so terrified of Trump” Stone said. “They’ve said it all over Europe and everywhere I’ve heard this story. What’s going to happen? It might not be quite as dramatic as that. It’ll probably be more conservative.

“There’s a lot of restraint being practiced on him. You also have the media already telling him what to do… I certainly think in some areas we can look optimistically — that he’s a smart man and he doesn’t want war.”

We can only wait and see if Trump offers restraint in the case of Snowden.

  • Snowden is in cinemas from Friday


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