Orwell was right: Oliver Stone on what makes Snowden exciting

The NSA isn't all-powerful but it's pretty darn scary, says the director of a new thriller based on Edward Snowden's story.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
5 min read
Juan Naharro Gimenez, Getty Images

Oliver Stone wants you to know he's not an activist.

Sure, he directed and co-wrote the upcoming political thriller about Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who in 2013 revealed vast government surveillance systems. It's just that Stone's a little too cynical to believe a movie can influence the policies that drive US spy programs.

"As a citizen, yes, I care," Stone said. But one movie isn't enough to drown out a government that "repeats itself constantly through the press, telling us that we're safer because we made a contract with the NSA to surveil our lives."

"Snowden," scheduled for release on September 16, is a hard-charging race through 10 years of Snowden's life, from his effort to join the Army (he broke both legs and got discharged) to his CIA training to his eventual belief that the federal government was abusing its power. The movie also chronicles Snowden's relationship with longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley, who helped push him to question his government.

Enlarge Image

"Snowden" is set for release on September 16.

Open Road Films

Everyone involved in the film got a taste of what it might take to evade the surveillance programs detailed by Snowden, who played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They filmed the majority of the story in Munich, encrypting communications and relying on paper scripts whenever possible. But Stone doesn't believe the NSA has much reason to worry about his project.

"I think it's done in a way that's human and not overly in their face," Stone said in a press statement.

Stone, known for blockbuster hits like "JFK," "Natural Born Killers" and "Born on the Fourth of July," talked to CNET about why he wanted to humanize Snowden's saga and how he turned all that technical data into a fast-paced drama.

Q: When did the issue of government surveillance grab your attention, and how much did you know about what Snowden revealed when you decided to take on this project?
Stone: I read "1984" as a child, and the book affected me. There was an issue of Time magazine in 1984 that declared so boastfully that 1984 has arrived and Orwell was wrong. I always was skeptical about that, because I'm skeptical about what the US government says and what Time magazine says. That's my nature.

Then, in 2005, when James Risen broke the story on illegal mass eavesdropping, that made big headlines. Not until Snowden in 2013, in June, did this get confirmed, that there was a mass program to eavesdrop on the American public and the world public, and world leaders.

I didn't meet [Snowden] until January 2014, at which point I'd read a bit more. I was wary of this as a movie, because it could be a disaster. New news could come up, or lawsuits -- it could backfire. You don't do hot potatoes, you just can't, in a film format, [because] it takes too long. It took us two and a half years to make the movie.

[After I met Snowden], I went ahead with my co-worker Kieran Fitzgerald who's much more technically oriented than I am. We dealt with all this information, and we didn't understand it by any means. It took us another six months of writing, and we kept rewriting and reading more and more information. Even when we were making the movie, we were rewriting. I went back to Moscow nine times. Snowden was very helpful in explaining technical matters to us and how to keep it as realistic as possible.

At the same time, I wanted to make it a dramatic thriller. I wanted to make it like "Enemy of the State," which is unbelievably exciting. But the fact is, the NSA is not that efficient, and certainly Snowden pointed that out. They're not right on top of you, but at the same time, it's much more nefarious what they can do. It is an Orwellian state.

There's a part in the movie focused on Snowden learning about surveillance tools like Xkeyscore and PRISM. It happens in a dramatic scenario where he's doing a covert operation and uses the tools to spy on one person in particular. What made you want to show the audience how the spy tools work with a plotline like that?
Stone: Well that's what keeps it real. We have no car chases, we have no guns. You try to personalize it as much as possible. You bring in the relationship he had with Lindsay Mills, which was a 10-year relationship. She keeps him human. As you know, programmers can be dull and they don't have much of a life, so I think the concept of Lindsay Mills, and Shailene Woodley's performance, keeps it real.

The two main relationships in the movie are between Snowden and his mentor at the CIA, and Snowden and his girlfriend Mills. In the end, you create a conflict in which Snowden has to choose. Why'd you take that approach?
Stone: I'm a dramatist, not a journalist. We dramatized these situations. He had mentors as he went in the intelligence community. We made [actor] Rhys Ifans the composite of [people] who were in senior positions of authority, and we developed that relationship from his training at the CIA school in Virginia. [Ifans' character] makes his argument for the NSA argument and I think he makes it well.

It's a tough film, but it's also a human film. It affects Snowden personally, and his girlfriend too. Ifans, who we called [Corbin] O'Brian after the character in 1984, intervenes into Snowden's life very personally. The surveillance state comes home to roost. The surveillance state is everywhere.

You pack a lot of issues into the movie -- surveillance, cyberwar and drone warfare. Do you think there's a risk that will overwhelm viewers, or are you hoping people will want to do something after seeing this movie?
Stone: There's a tremendous amount of information. I was faced with that problem from the beginning. But as I said, I wanted to make it a dramatic thriller.

What can we do about [government surveillance]? That's a very good question, and I think Snowden is on top of that. He tweets, he's very involved in reforming the internet. He's the one who's strongly endorsed encryption. The corporations which were formerly collaborating with the government changed their policies, and they went after the idea that they would sell encryption to their customers.

And whether we're really being protected or not is a good question. We're in the middle of this evolutionary time, where systems are changing all the time, where the NSA maybe is a step ahead of us.