We live in highly polarized times and one of our era’s biggest lightning rods of divisiveness is Edward Snowden.
Opinions remain sharply divided over the young intelligence agent and contractor who leaked top secret information to the media exposing the National Security Agency’s colossal global surveillance of millions of innocent Americans’ (and others’) supposedly private phone calls, emails and Internet use.
Is Snowden – who now lives in Moscow and has been charged by the U.S. Justice Department with violating the Espionage Act – a criminal and traitor to his country? Or is he a noble champion of individual rights, liberties and privacy who, at great risk to himself, sounded the alarm about the Big Brother-like programs of a national security state run amok in order to warn his fellow citizens?
The starkly contrasting viewpoints on Snowden are epitomized by public statements made about him and his “thought crimes” by different 2016 presidential candidates. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced Snowden while, with his usual bluster, real estate mogul Donald Trump advocated his “execution.” On the other hand, expressing the gratitude and sentiment of many of his fellow Americans, Sen. Bernie Sanders praised the whistleblower.
The above actual comments made by these three White House contenders are all heard in the new movie Snowden, which is being released as the real life leaker seeks outgoing Pres. Obama to grant him a presidential pardon, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many notables. Stepping into the Snowden brouhaha is none other than Oliver Stone, arguably Hollywood’s most controversial director.
And the triple Oscar winner’s take on the über-leaker is as big a red hot hot potato as its contentious subject is. Some will find Snowden too hot to handle, while others will hail it as a homage to heroism and dissent.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock from the Sun, 500 Days of Summer, Inception) stars as the title character in Snowden, which Stone directed and co-wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald. (Fun fact of the review: The actor’s grandfather, Academy Award-nominated director Michael Gordon, had been part of the renowned Group Theatre and helmed 1950’s Cyrano de Bergerac, for which Jose Ferrer won the Best Actor Oscar, and the anti-capitalist I Can Get It For You Wholesale written by Communist Abraham Polonsky in 1951, the same year Gordon was summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee and banned from moviemaking during the Hollywood Blacklist. Gordon-Levitt’s parents met in the 1970s at L.A.’s lefty Pacifica radio station, KPFK.)
Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, the Insurgent film franchise) portrays Edward’s lover, Lindsay Mills. Nicolas Cage has a small role as a Snowden CIA mentor, while Rhys Ifans plays another patron of the intel community’s once-promising young star. Zachary Quinto (Mr. Spock in the current Star Trek film franchise) plays Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, Tom Wilkinson (Pres. Johnson in Selma) portrays Guardian correspondent Ewen MacAskill and Melissa Leo (Oscar-nominee for 2008’s Frozen River, Oscar-winner for 2010’s The Fighter) depicts filmmaker Laura Poitras.
These are the journalists and documentarian who met with Snowden in 2013 at a Hong Kong hotel room, where he let the cat out of the bag, on the record, disclosing Uncle Sam’s surveillance state colossus, spying on millions of Americans and others not suspected, let alone convicted, of committing a crime. While Snowden gave the game away, revealing to them the whole enchilada about government prying programs, such as PRISM, Poitras filmed the unfolding saga, largely in Snowden’s room at Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel, for which her 2014 documentary Citizenfour won an Oscar. (The Guardian and Washington Post also won a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for publishing Snowden’s revelations.)
(Asked via email by this writer what she thought of Snowden, Poitras replied: “I don’t have a comment – I haven’t been invited to see the film.” In her email Poitras, who now works for The Intercept, went on to describe her “experience meeting Stone, which was unpleasant…”)
With his storytelling prowess and panache, Stone takes Snowden beyond that remarkable experience mostly set in Britain’s former Crown Colony to tell much of the rest of Snowden’s life story, at far flung locations, including Georgia, Maryland, Switzerland, Japan, Hawaii and, Moscow, in addition to Hong Kong. The two-hour, 14-minute globe-hopping narrative fiction film is a thriller and love story.
Given the writer/director’s independent sensibility, Stone has long been the cinematic scourge of the status quo. The Vietnam veteran was wounded twice, awarded the Purple Heart and went on to win two Best Director Oscars for his antiwar masterpieces, 1986’s Platoon and 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July (that movie’s real life protagonist, the freewheeling wheelchair-riding Ron Kovic – who was played by Oscar-nommed Tom Cruise – attended an Aug. 31 Snowden private screening near Beverly Hills with Stone). Platoon won the Best Picture Academy Award, while Born on the Fourth of July was nominated for Best Picture.
During Reagan’s presidency Stone also challenged U.S. foreign policy in Central America in 1986’s likewise hard-hitting Salvador (its star, James Woods, also attended the late August Snowden screening). With its iconic “Greed is good” line uttered by Michael Douglas’ ruthless Gordon Gekko, 1987’s Wall Street also tackled the financial sector during the Reagan era, as did its updated 2010 sequel.
Stone’s piece de resistance is probably 1991’s JFK, which won two Oscars and was nominated for six more, including Best Picture. JFK is an intense expose of the lone gunman and magic bullet theories regarding the Kennedy assassination, which Stone masterfully debunks while making a strong case for a CIA-involved conspiracy. No Stone feature – at least prior to Snowden – has raised so much establishment ire against the writer/director and his lefty sensibility.
Starting with 1991’s The Doors, starring Val Kilmer as rocker Jim Morrison, Stone’s oeuvre has included acerbic, penetrating biopics. Anthony Hopkins portrayed Tricky Dick in 1995’s Nixon; Colin Farrell depicted Alexander the Great in 2004’s Alexander; and Josh Brolin played George W. Bush in 2008’s W. Snowden is in the line of Stone’s biographical features, as well as of his documentaries, wherein Stone has created compelling nonfiction portraits of Fidel Castro, Cuba, Hugo Chavez and more, culminating in his 2009 overview of Latin America’s left-leaning leaders, South of the Border.
With 2012’s 10-hour Showtime documentary series The Untold History of the United States Stone reached the apotheosis of his nonfiction and feature films, which is to pose counter-narratives with alternative visions that depart from and contradict official versions of historical personages and events. In a previous interview with this writer, Stone mused about his radical role as a filmmaker, saying: “A counter-narrative [laughs]. My fortune and my destiny.”
Snowden is very much in this “counter-myth” vein, with Stone taking off the gloves and confronting common misconceptions about the whistleblower that have been perpetrated and perpetuated by the establishment media and authorities. For example, the movie challenges the notion that Snowden is working for Russian intelligence and explains: The real reasons why Snowden ended up in Moscow (where he is currently resisting extradition to the U.S.) after leaving Hong Kong; what his actual role and position in the intel community was; why the leaker didn’t air his concerns through “proper” bureaucratic channels and blew the whistle on the NSA, et al, to the press; who girlfriend Lindsay Mills is; etc. Above all, Snowden – which includes a cameo appearance by the real life Edward Snowden, who lived comfortably with Mills in Hawaii when he worked for the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton – expresses what motivated Edward to give all that up and go public with his revelations about the surveillance state, which turned him into a fugitive on the run, charged with spying.
Seeing Snowden should help viewers to decide whether or not they believe the truth-teller deserves clemency as Obama – who has charged more Americans with the Espionage Act than all other presidents combined – leaves the Oval Office. Snowden is Stone’s 20th feature and as the renowned writer/director turns 70, he is at the top of his game.
Snowden is arguably Stone’s best feature film in 25 years, since JFK.
A day after this film historian/critic attended the late summer Snowden screening with Stone he interviewed the movie maestro about his film telling the story of that courageous young man who, at his own peril, pulled the curtain back from those government snoops and liars who want to know everything about you – but don’t want you to know anything about them, and what they are doing.
Ed Rampell: In the corporate media talking heads try to belittle Snowden as a “low level CIA asset” or “NSA staffer.” Some even deny that he actually worked for the CIA. But your film paints another picture. What was Snowden’s actual role?
Oliver Stone: We went with the record and what he told us. He was an employee of the CIA, was trained there. He went to Geneva on his first assignment. This is covered in Luke Harding’s book [a major source for the film], a new edition owned by The Guardian. Everything as stated in the film is where he was at that time, in those years. He went from Geneva, he resigned, then he went back to work for Dell, contractor with a security clearance in Japan. He was with the NSA, where he saw a lot of the cyberwarfare and surveillance activity. He went from there to – also with Dell – back to Maryland, where he was involved in selling to the CIA Dell products. He did very well there – he had it very well made, a good situation in life. From there he went to Hawaii after he had an epilepsy attack and took very important duty in Hawaii, as we show.
But he was certainly not low level. He was very bright. He designed a new [surveillance] program called “Epic Shelter.” He was working on another program called “Heartbeat” that very few people know about. And it was in that capacity that he gained access…
Snowden is based on a very clouded public record. I tried to talk with as many people as possible with my co-writer. I went to Moscow many times to talk with the man himself. This is a dramatization – it’s not intended to be a documentary. But it is very close to the facts.
Ed Rampell: What is Snowden’s life like at Moscow? How does he support himself?
Oliver Stone: His life there I can’t tell you in detail. He stays very active and spends much of his time on a computer. He speaks to many groups. He speaks to corporations sometimes, to universities and other societies interested in reform, Internet questions. He says very intelligent things about what’s going on in the present day and the surveillance universe. So his life there is circumscribed; I don’t think he travels around a lot these days. He’s a computer programmer – remember, he always was sedentary, even in his early years with Lindsay. He was more the introvert – she was the extrovert. He avoided photographs and so forth. Very much similar.
Ed Rampell: What does Lindsay Mills do there?
Oliver Stone: She’s an interesting case. We certainly treated her – we really looked at this relationship in more depth than the media did. They treated her as bit of a… liability – I would say they treated her negatively. Described her as a sort of a hippie, a pole dancer type. No, she’s much more than that. She became much closer to Ed in that 10 year relationship. Nurtured; was important to him. And she’s joined him again of her volition. He kept her out of the loop – of course, he sacrificed his life to protect her. But he didn’t expect to live another life. Ever since he’s had a second life that he hadn’t planned on. She joined him there, so I think that’s quite an interesting love story.
Ed Rampell: Who will you vote for president?
Oliver Stone: [Green Party candidate] Jill Stein… The two [major party] candidates have not talked about surveillance state or Mr. Snowden. Or, for that matter, about the wars America’s involved in – or, for that matter, about environmental change. This is a strange, superficial election…
Ed Rampell: Compare… Snowden… to JFK?
Oliver Stone: They’re similar in that there was a tremendous amount of research that had to be done. We threw out 50% of our research – there was just too much. Already in the film we’re discussing: mass surveillance; drones; cyberwarfare. There was quite a lot, a complex story; very difficult to simplify. We had to dramatize… we condensed so much material. But I think we stayed truthful to the spirit to what happened…
Ed Rampell: Have you ever been surveilled?
Oliver Stone: I imagine that I’ve crossed somebody’s line somewhere. But I don’t feel that I’m an object of pursuit. I’ve been out there a long time… They kind of know and they can pretty much find out whatever they want. I don’t like the idea, they could – but they would.
See a video of Edward Snowden discussing his seeking of a presidential pardon with The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill.
Also visit the ACLU’s website, where you can sign the petition urging the president to grant Snowden clemency before he leaves office.
An advanced screening in 800 theaters of the highly anticipated film Snowden, followed by a live satellite conversation between director Oliver Stone and former CIA employee Edward Snowden, takes place Sept. 14. For details and a trailer click here.
Snowden opens nationwide Sept. 16.
Ed Rampell is a film historian and critic and longtime repeat contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine who has previously interviewed Oliver Stone a number of times, including for this publication. Rampell is the co-author of The Hawaii and Movie Book.