Harvard Film Archive hosts ‘Snowden’ Q&A with Oliver Stone
“I hope to God there are more whistleblowers. We need them desperately.”
One of the scariest scenes in Oliver Stone’s Snowden finds our whistleblowing protagonist grilled by a sinister supervisor via a gigantic, wall-sized Skype screen — the interrogator’s menacing, oversized head dwarfing his underling’s entire body. So it’s fitting that shortly before a screening of the movie, Stone himself appeared larger-than-life on the big screen at the Harvard Film Archive. The controversial filmmaker took questions from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind at Harvard’s Kennedy School last Monday night, their talk simulcast to moviegoers at the HFA. But like any director worth his salt, Oliver Stone first wanted to adjust the lighting.
“That’s a harsh spotlight. Is there anything you can do to deflect it a little bit? I feel like I’m under interrogation here.” Stone asked, dramatically shielding his eyes. “I was here in January of 1992 for JFK and that was quite an interrogation that night.” He shuddered at the memory before laughing it off. “I love you guys. I’m here actually for the Harvard Film Archive, with my friend [HFA director] Haden Guest. He invited me here because they’re waiting for me to die.”
Stone turned seventy last week, and the next day saw the release of Snowden, his bristling bit of agitprop about the notorious former National Security Agency contractor, now a fugitive hiding in Russia after revealing the extent to which our government spies on its citizens. A jittery tale of paranoia and patriotic disillusionment, the Edward Snowden story sounds like a natural born Oliver Stone movie, but the filmmaker swears he wasn’t interested, at least not at first.
“I didn’t want to make this movie. Someone approached me, but I’m not chasing the news, thank you very much. You can’t do that with a movie. It takes too long to make. Things change. Things come out of the woodwork. There could be a new charge. It’s very, very tricky so I passed. A few months later, I was called by Snowden’s lawyer who said please come and meet him. I went out of curiosity. Who’s going to say no to a meeting like that?”
Meeting Edward Snowden changed Stone’s mind, he explained to Suskind. “I found the young man you found, probably. Very articulate, very sincere. A man who was almost a boy scout, I’d say. A very bright boy scout, in the sense that he really believed that his oath was to the Constitution, and not to the NSA or the CIA. At twenty-nine years old, to do what Ed did merited my attention. I wanted to explore further, how do you do this? How do you become this kind of young man?”
Stone couldn’t resist the parallels in Snowden’s experience to that of Ron Kovic, whose journey from gung-ho soldier to anti-war activist the filmmaker chronicled in his 1989 masterpiece, Born on the Fourth of July, a story that in many ways also mirrored Stone’s own. “I certainly have firsthand experience having had myself grown up as a conservative. My father was a Republican and believed very much the Russians were coming all through my youth in the 1950s. So I’ve been there, and I went to Vietnam on that basis. It took me a long time, much longer than Ed, to learn how to find my way.”
The director visited Snowden nine times in Moscow while penning the screenplay with collaborator Kieran Fitzgerald (who co-wrote 2014’s excellent The Homesman with fellow Harvard alum Tommy Lee Jones.) It was a process Stone describes as “tortured,” calling the arcane details of NSA surveillance programs “so mindlessly boring. I wanted to make Enemy of the State or something like The Bourne Identity. Keeping it dramatic was the hardest because we would get bogged down in all the data. How are we gonna take all this information, which is technical and complex, and render it into a movie that can be understood in Alabama?”
Some critics have been quick to dismiss Snowden as irrelevant next to Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s 2014 Academy Award-winning documentary in which we watch Edward Snowden making history from a Hong Kong hotel room. (Poitras is portrayed in Stone’s film by Melissa Leo.) “I think the documentary is a fine film and I agree with her conclusions and I love what she shows. But it deals with a week in his life. This shows you the whole picture,” the filmmaker chafed. “Milk was a great documentary and it was also a great feature. I don’t find them to be contradictory, I find them to be complementary. Boys Don’t Cry was a documentary first. There have been many versions of Lincoln’s life. I don’t see any contradiction between Raymond Massey [Abe Lincoln in Illinois, 1940] and Daniel Day-Lewis [Lincoln, 2012]. It’s all a continuation of an exploration. A story can be told many ways.”
Playing devil’s advocate, Suskind pressed the director on his anti-establishment leanings, wondering aloud if an entire generation of Edward Snowden wannabes might do more harm than good. Stone didn’t have any easy answers. “This is a very important point and throughout history it comes up again and again,” he sighed. “On a smaller scale, I was in Vietnam. I took a loyalty oath to serve. And I’ll tell you, things started to go haywire. This was 1967–8, as early as that. When you see things in villages — when you see civilians being rousted and killed, abused, property stolen, people raped — where do you set the line? I am a soldier. I don’t believe in this. This is a form of behavior that’s been sanctioned. Not by the officers, but the officers are not there. So what do you do?
“At the NSA we had years and years of roughly thirty-thousand people working there, off-and-on. Some of them sympathized with Snowden, but they would not cross that line. It was their incomes, their families, their self-interest, that is a hard case and it goes on. There are good Germans everywhere. And I hope to God there are more whistleblowers. We need them desperately.
“But I’m a realist and pragmatic, too. I understand the need for security and the need for some of the things that they’re doing, absolutely. I think Ed should be the head of the NSA, if you really want to know the truth.” The audience laughed, but Stone continued his pitch.
“He believes in the defense of the country, but properly organized and controlled. Right now we are out of control. No one’s watching this secret government. Yes, Obama has given great lip service to this. Great lip service, and done nothing. He appointed a commission of five terror experts to examine the laws of the NSA, and in December of 2014 they condemned them wholeheartedly and made forty-five suggestions for reform. They said there’s no evidence that mass eavesdropping has solved one single incident of terrorism. The President did nothing with those reports, and continues to build the most massive surveillance system in the history of mankind without democratic consent.”
SNOWDEN is now playing at theaters everywhere.