The panel also included stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, who discuss the highlights and difficulties in portraying non-fictional modern characters.
One of the most controversial news stories of this decade was Edward Snowden’s leak of private government information to the public through multiple journalists, as well as the global manhunt that followed. The premiere of Academy Award Winner Oliver Stone’s latest political docudrama Snowden was followed by a stacked panel. Stone, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley were all on stage, as well as the subject of film who video chatted in from his undisclosed location in Moscow. The Knocturnal was there to capture the highlights of what the director, cast and the ‘man who sold the world’ had to say.
“Coming from an NSA background, whenever you picture Russia, it’s this frozen icy place,” Snowden has spent the last three years since his exile in Russia. He jokingly adds to the end of his introduction, “It’s not always like that. [laughs]. It’s actually quite nice in the summer.”
“I think I was there 9 times by the time it was over. Incrementally he trusted us more and more,” Oliver Stone added. Regarding the film, Stone was well aware a documentary already existed and wanted to shift the focus of drama elsewhere.
“It’s not just about what happened, it’s about relationships,” Stone elaborated. “He is a very shy person and we probed him on his relationship with Lindsay Mills. To me that was the dramatic fair. Without it we would have a hard cold movie. We needed a relationship and there was one in plain sight. The press had not been very kind to Lindsay.”
“I think there is a natural incentive if there is a beautiful woman involved to reduce her only to that. To make her not quite a person,” Snowden chimed in when asked about his relationship, an aspect of his life he had not made super public during the time of the incident, nor was it the focus of Citizenfour.
“It’s easy for the media to spin a story,” actress Shailene Woodley who portrayed Mills in the film added. “A lot of us know what Edward Snowden did. And a lot of us have strong opinions on Edward Snowden, but until this movie no one knew the story of Ed, the human. We knew the story mainstream media put out.”
“The amount of care that went into it is reassuring,” Snowden told the panel when asked his opinion on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of him. He made the point that it was an odd situation to be in, and while no portrayal can truly capture the essence of a person “it was close enough that my family liked it.”
And they really did. As a heartfelt anecdote from Gordon-Levitt explained. “We had our premiere last night. Ed’s Mom and Dad came. I don’t know if I’ve ever had as fulfilling of a chance as an actor than meeting them. When you play a real person and their real mother and father come up to you and say ‘thanks, I saw my son in what you’re doing’ and his dad made a point of looking me in the eye and saying thanks. I’ve never experienced that kind of positive feedback as an actor.”
“And his grandmother as well,” Stone chimed in dryly, producing a laugh from the audience and panel alike.
But it wasn’t all fun and games for everyone involved. A particular fight between Mills and Snowden took a great deal of effort from Woodley and Gordon-Levitt to perfect.
“When you have a fight like that in real life it lasts as long as it lasts,” Gordon-Levitt said. “When you are shooting a scene where you fight like that you are fighting for 12 hours.”
When asked if he could even watch the scene without covering his eyes, Ed Snowden joked succinctly “how does any human respond to a scene that portrays you as the world’s worst boyfriend?”
Snowden followed the remark by saying that was all he had to say before launching into his next monologue. He seemed hesitant to share information about his private life, but this was important.
“There was real tension and a real cost on the relationship to holding secrets,” he said earnestly. “It’s true that I didn’t tell her. When she saw the same report everyone else saw in June 2013 that was the first she knew about it. The fact that she said she understood and forgave me and came to be with me. That’s something I will never be able to pay back.”
In terms of the subject matter, privacy is still something Edward Snowden takes very seriously. Even amidst the discussion he sparked, there were many dissenters. To those people — and anyone who doesn’t believe government surveillance is an issue — he had the following to say.
“The common argument we have is if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. That is literally Nazi propaganda, which is not to equate the actions of our current government to the Nazis, but the origin of that quote is from Joseph Goebbels. So when we hear politicians repeating that reflexively without confronting what it really says that is harmful. Privacy isn’t about something to hide. It’s about something to protect and that’s who you are. Privacy is what gives you the ability to share with the world who you are on your own terms and to protect the parts of you you’re not sure about. If you don’t have privacy what we are losing is the ability to make mistakes, we are losing the ability to be ourselves. Privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights. Freedom of speech doesn’t have any meaning if you can’t find a space to say what you want to say. Privacy is baked into our language. Without privacy you don’t’ have anything to yourself. So when people say that to me I say back ‘arguing that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like arguing you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
Snowden is in theaters now.