Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden. Photo: Jürgen Olczyk/Open Road Films.
In 1995, Oliver Stone directed and co-wrote Nixon, a film about America’s wiretapper-in-chief and all the president’s über-snoopers, with Anthony Hopkins as Tricky Dick, Bob Hoskins as FBI führer J. Edgar Hoover and a supporting cast of GOP dirty tricksters and “plumbers.”
Now Stone, that cinematic scourge of the surveillance state and the status quo, has come full circle with Snowden, a brilliant biopic depicting America’s greatest whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg.
Stone’s new biographical picture opens in Hong Kong, where Edward Snowden met in 2013 with documentarian Laura Poitras and The Guardian’s columnist Glenn Greenwald and correspondent Ewen MacAskill.
(Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt of 3rd Rock from the Sun and The Dark Knight Rises plays Snowden. Melissa Leo, who won a 2010 Oscar for The Fighter, plays Laura Poitras. Zarchary Quinto of Star Trek plays Greenwald. Ewen MacAskill is played by Tom Wilkinson.)
At the Mira Hotel Snowden reveals a treasure trove of top-secret information about the U.S. government’s gargantuan surveillance systems, monitoring phone calls, emails and Internet usage of millions of ordinary Americans. He describes how the intelligence community lies to Congress and the public about these bulk data collection networks (a news clip from the film shows James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, falsely testifying under oath to U.S. Senators).
Stone transports viewers far beyond the hotel room’s claustrophobic confines, as the globetrotting Snowden flashes back to young Edward’s basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. When the frail recruit is injured he receives a volunteer’s administrative discharge from the Army and decides to join the Central Intelligence Agency.
Stone cinematically visualizes the surveillance state through special effects. In one chilling scene, Snowden’s intel mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) confronts him via a giant screen. This is a clear reference to George Orwell’s 1984—O’Brien is the name of the Inner Party leader who betrays 1984’s protagonist.
Much has been made in the mainstream media about Snowden’s career as a “low level analyst” or “systems administrator” in the CIA, National Security Agency, and defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Obama—who has charged more whistleblowers with the Espionage Act than every other President combined—dismissed him as “a twenty-nine-year-old hacker.” Stone seeks to set the record straight.
“We went with the record and what he told us,” Stone told me in an interview. “He was an employee of the CIA and went to Geneva on his first assignment. He went from Geneva to work for Dell 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 —also with Dell—back to Maryland, where he was involved in selling Dell products to the CIA.”
“He was certainly not low-level,” Stone said. “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 to classified material.”
Stone also dispels false notions about Snowden’s longtime lover, Lindsay Mills. As portrayed by Shailene Woodley (the revolutionary Tris in the Divergent film franchise) the freethinking Mills may be the best female character in Stone’s twenty features; a gutsy, antiwar feminist.
“We really looked at this relationship in more depth than the media did,” said Stone. “They treated her as bit of a liability—I would say they treated her negatively, describing her as a sort of a hippie. But she’s much more than that. She became much closer to Ed in their ten-year relationship. And she’s joined him again of her volition. He kept her out of the loop, but he didn’t expect to live another life. She joined him there, so I think that’s quite an interesting love story.”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden and Shailene Woodley as Lindsay Mills. Photo: William Gray/Open Road Films.
Snowden himself makes a cameo appearance in the film. About Snowden’s current life, Stone said, “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 interested in reform. I don’t think he travels around a lot these days, but he’s a computer programmer remember. He always was sedentary, even in his early years with Lindsay.”
During the film’s ending credits Hillary Clinton is heard criticizing Snowden, Donald Trump calls for his “execution,” and Senator Bernie Sanders is heard praising him. But last June, Congress passed the U.S.A. Freedom Act, a law that directly resulted from Snowden’s efforts to expose illegal surveillance. Anti-Snowden diehards who refuse to see Stone’s take on this historical whistleblower may be compared to sixteenth-century Ptolemaic astronomers, who were unwilling to look at the heavens through Galileo’s telescope.
Snowden opens in theaters on September 16.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell interviewed Oliver Stone in 2010 and 2012 for The Progressive Magazine and is the co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.