In Oliver Stone’s new film, “Snowden,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor who created a seismic controversy in 2013 when he told the world that the agency was spying on US. citizens. The film follows Snowden on the path that transformed him from a hawkish conservative Army enlistee to a whistleblower, international fugitive, asylum seeker and household name. Today everyone knows him, as either a principled patriot or a tattletale traitor.
It’s irresistible material for Stone, a multiple Academy Award-winning screenwriter and director. Stone was the writer behind “Scarface’s” “Meet my little friend” and the unforgettable “Greed is good” speech by Michael Douglas in “Wall Street” — films so iconic that four words or less evoke them immediately. He made even more of an impression as a director. If his contribution to cinema was just “Platoon,” “JFK,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Any Given Sunday,” his work would still deserve serious scrutiny. Encompassing subjects that range from music to politics to history, he knows how to really put the hook in audiences.
“Snowden” is a return to form for Stone, who just turned 70. Over four decades, Stone’s career has followed the standard template of humble origins, struggle, success, acclaim, reverses and a third act moment of uplift. Last week we discussed “Snowden” via FaceTime. Talking with him is like experiencing a splash of sound bites, an arc that begins at colorful pleasantries, and then races forward to political morality tales before circling back to a thoughtful climax. Much like an Oliver Stone film.
‘It’s a rebel story’
The film’s focus on government cyber surveillance rising to levels that would stun George Orwell made Stone chuckle at the possibility that we were being monitored by data miners as we talked. “I know we are,” he chuckled. “I’ve done so many of these [interviews], I’m sure they know what I think.”
As do most people who have followed Stone’s work, which regularly expresses outspoken, radical views. Over the course of his career, he has made crime movies, horror films, documentaries, musicals and comic film noir, but he keeps returning to political films. “I’m fascinated by people who affect us,” he said. He likens Snowden to “the mosquitoes” that capture our attention if they are not smacked.
“Most of those people [in national intelligence], there were 300,000 of them over those years, did nothing, except for a few. Most people don’t speak out. We’re controlled mostly by central governments that set the narrative in front of us. A movie comes out, it says its thing, for a time people get moved. But the repetition of the establishment line goes on,” he said, imitating the tone of the power elite. “ ‘You have to be afraid. We have to have a treaty with you. That we are going to protect you at all costs.’
“That’s a treaty that we agree to, and it’s a treaty they assume they have. They take out sovereignty. They make us feel as if we’re ants, insignificant, just terrorist targets” rather than participants in democratic national debates. That’s what draws Stone to films that in his view “communicate the reality of the world.” Even though corporations producing films “tend not to want risk at all. And the bigger our corporations get in America, the worse off we’re going to get.” It’s worth noting here that every U.S. film studio rejected “Snowden.” It was financed abroad.
Issues of corporate and governmental control are important to Stone, whose father was a Wall Street investment banker. He took his privileged family’s Republican values to prep school and Yale, and avoided the student deferment widely available to young men of his background. As an Army infantryman, he won a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for Heroism in Combat fighting for the anti-Communist cause in Vietnam. He returned to the States in 1969 a changed man with a different mind-set.
He was one of the earliest public supporters of Snowden, long before the possibility of making a film about him emerged.
“The Snowden story is outside politics. It’s a rebel story. He’s like a Nathan Hale,” immortalized for his famous quote “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Snowden, who put his own freedom at risk by exposing the hidden war between national security and civil liberties, “proved he had two lives, one now in Russia” where Stone met with him nine times to craft Snowden’s saga into a form that would please both him and viewers.
The focus of their discussions wasn’t partisan polemic — the film is sharply critical of President Obama’s prosecutions of whistleblowers after his promises of transparency — but intelligible entertainment. “I’m interested in storytelling. I’m a dramatist. For the most part, [political films] bore me. They tend to become trivial.”
“This election doesn’t interest me, really. It’s a sad election, tragic for the country. Has either candidate addressed the issue of the surveillance state? The issue of America in so many wars? The environment? These are the three biggest issues right now. They don’t even talk about them. Snowden is a very valuable to us. He stayed as a spokesman, speaking to us.”
If “Snowden” succeeds as a film, he said, “it shows that people do care and it does matter.”