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Oliver Stone on freedom, security, and his new film about Edward Snowden

"Sometimes you have to break the law to serve it."

Still photo from film “Snowden”
Open Road Films

As a filmmaker, Oliver Stone is drawn to a familiar protagonist: cocksure, naïve, principled, disdainful of authority. If you’ve seen Wall Street, Platoon, or Born on the Fourth of July, you’ll know what I mean.

No surprise, then, that his latest film is a biopic of Edward Snowden, the exiled whistleblower. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who’s terrific) as Ed Snowden, the film is sprawling, well-paced — and borders on hagiography. According to the film, there’s never a doubt as to Snowden’s intentions. He’s a hero, a man of conscience who stumbled into injustice and sacrificed himself for the greater good.

Is Stone’s portrait of Snowden oversimplified? Perhaps. Does it glide past the unintended consequences of his decision? Certainly. But the film is worth seeing nevertheless, if only because of the themes it explores and the questions it raises.

I spoke with Stone on Friday, the day Snowden was released nationwide. I wanted to know why he felt this film had to be made now, and what he thinks of Snowden’s present and long-term impact.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing: In a recent interview with Michael Hainey of Wired, you said that initially you didn’t want to make this movie because “it’s a live situation,” but ultimately you couldn’t walk away from it.

Oliver Stone: Well, it's an important story for our time. It confirms the suspicions many of us had that a kind of secret state was being erected.

As for the film, I got an invitation from Snowden's lawyer to go to Moscow to meet him. I went to see what he had to say, and I heard enough from him to believe that a movie could be made, a movie that had a reason to be, a movie that wouldn't be a complete fiction. Obviously, there are things we couldn't use or say, but I couldn't move forward without a belief in the reality of this story.

SI: It’s a tricky thing, distinguishing a patriot from a traitor. What do you consider Edward Snowden?

OS: I think he's stated very clearly what he is. I think his actions justify everything he's said. If Snowden was a spy, he would not have given his information to Glenn Greenwald and other journalists for free — that’s not what spies do. He’s also criticized his host country Russia for its surveillance state activities. So I think he's very much a patriot. He did this out of conviction, out of love for country, very much like Ron Kovic, the subject of my film Born on the Fourth of July. When Kovic turned against the war in Vietnam, it wasn't because he was a traitor. It was because he actually loved his country and wanted to see it get off its militaristic path.

SI: The dynamic between Snowden and his boss at the CIA, played by Rhys Ifans in the film, is fascinating. Ifan’s character is not quite a villain, but he represents an orientation to institutional power and American hegemony that is totally unreflective.

OS: I completely agree. I wrote those words; I know the feeling behind them. I grew up a Republican with a conservative background, and I went to Vietnam. When I produced the series The Untold History of the United States, along with historian Peter Kuznick, we studied a pattern of American exceptionalism, something that's been in our discourse for a long time.

The character you're referring to is an amalgam of six different supervisors, but he represents a prevailing attitude. He says at one point that there's been no Word War III because we rule the world, because we centralize intelligence, and generally for the good of the people. You can look at that historically and agree with it. He also says you don't have to be a patriot to support your politicians. But he makes his point several times, which is that there's a reason for America.

I heard Hillary Clinton say recently that we are the exceptional country and that we're the indispensable nation. This idea that we've dominated the world since World War II and there's been nothing but prosperity and peace has to be examined. So many people have been killed as a result of the imperial policies of the United States — millions of people, in fact. There's no understanding of history on the part of people who say things like that. … We have to acknowledge our past.

SI: How do you view the relationship between freedom and security?

OS: I think it's a false equation. You don't trade one for the other. You can have good security and maintain your rights. I think the surveillance state is the worst contract we could sign, and it's been signed without democratic consent. If you survey history and look at what's promised to those who forfeit their liberty, the leaders never deliver on their side of the contract.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Hosts an official Academy Screening of SNOWDEN
Director Oliver Stone attends The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

SI: The film quietly exalts the nobility of disobeying laws in defense of a higher good. Is that how you view Snowden’s actions?

OS: I do. The film doesn't make that judgment. It leaves you to make up your own mind. But you witness what he did and you decide for yourself. Personally, though, I believe in the principle, the principle of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, that there's a higher law and sometimes you have to break the law to serve it.

SI: Are you sympathetic to those who argue that Snowden did the country and the world a service, but wish he’d have done it another way?

OS: I hear that a lot. But the truth is that he was charged under the Espionage Act and under that law you can't get a fair trial, and you can't use a public interest defense. Like Chelsea Manning, the US Army soldier who leaked classified materials to WikiLeaks, you’re muzzled and not allowed to speak in your defense. Snowden would be treated in much the same way. He has said he would come back if he could get a fair trial.

SI: Watching the film one senses Snowden’s only crime is that he cares too much. What’s your response to critics who say you paint too pristine a picture of your subject?

OS: Well, that was certainly not our intention. If I had seen any flaws in his motives or personality, I would gladly have brought them out. If anything, I'd say he's more of a Boy Scout than any of these resistance people that I've met. He's lived a clean life. If there's dirt, I'd love for it to come out. I brought out his physical flaws in the movie. He was not capable of getting through the military training for special forces because his body was frail, and we’re honest about that. But the rest of the film squares with what we know about Snowden’s life.

SI: Perhaps it will change, but as of now hardly any of the intelligence collection programs have been halted as a result of Snowden’s leaks, and indeed some have expanded. What do you think Snowden’s impact will ultimately be?

OS: That's a very broad question. It's true that these reforms have been superficial to a large degree. The NSA, as of 2016, is pressing on with a tremendous technology that will allow them to break encryption. Part of what Snowden did was create an atmosphere in which the corporations that were once collaborating with the government, for a variety of reasons, have to alter their decision calculus. In a sense, what Snowden did was symbolic. He reminded us, all of us, that we have to take on the security state. We can't conform to external demands without questioning them.