Oliver Stone: ‘We owe Edward Snowden a huge debt. He’s a hero for our time’

The reliably controversial American auteur spent 18 months talking to the CIA whistle-blower for his new film

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s Snowden.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s Snowden.


You don’t need to keep rewinding – and the use of the iconic phrase “back and to the left” is entirely optional – to uncover a pleasingly classical trajectory in the films of Oliver Stone. Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July and JFK all pivot around idealistic men who become increasingly disillusioned with the machinations of the United States’ military, industrial or financial institutions.

It would be convenient to see Stone, a heavily decorated veteran of the Vietnam War turned American auteur, in a similar vein. The writer and director insists that both he and his motivations for requesting combat duty “were a little more ambiguous than, say, Ron Kovic” – the anti-war activist who wrote Born on the Fourth of July – yet he acknowledges parallels between him and the characters who populate his films.

Having presided over the biopics of two American presidents (Nixon and W) and a rock star (The Doors), Stone has now turned to Edward Snowden, the US soldier turned CIA whistle-blower.

“I can see he’s a bit like Ron Kovic,” says Stone. “Or like me until I signed up. Snowden wanted to do the right thing. He was a bit of a boy scout. He still sees himself like that. He’s doing the right thing. He has more of a desk-clerk pallor and manner than I do. And, like Kovic, he came to realise he was working for a weird and dubious cause.”

Few long-time Stone watchers will be surprised that his 20th feature film as director is Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular dissident and Shailene Woodley as his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills.  

“I do need to talk about his girlfriend,” says the film-maker. “Because without her he wouldn’t have done any of this. She kept him human and gave him the courage to sacrifice what was his own life at 29.”

Stone’s portrait of Snowden is quite the rabbit hole: a proud, zealous patriot, Snowden joined the US army’s special forces hoping to fight in Iraq after 9/11. As an employee at the CIA and, later, the National Security Agency he became increasingly dismayed by the use of enormous covert surveillance programmes, which are being used to spy on both allied nations abroad and US citizens at home.

“The problem is I don’t think that many people understood in 2013 when he made those headlines,” says Stone. “I don’t think they understood the programmes, because those are very technical and hard to explain. We’re talking about a new kind of warfare of massive surveillance: data mining on everybody in the world.”

Global surveillance programmes


“Because I knew it would be controversial,” he says. “And I didn’t want that. You get into endless messes when you follow the news. The news changes fast. But a movie is supposed to last. And it takes a long time to make.”

In January 2014 Stone got a call from Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s Russian lawyer and the author of a dystopian novel called Time of the Octopus. By then a slew of biographies had appeared – see The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, by the Guardian journalist Luke Harding, and The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster, by Edward Lucas of the Economist – but few of the authors had met Snowden, who had taken asylum in Russia.

Stone, a method director who once charmed the El Salvador government into giving him soldiers to make a film that would do nothing to boost tourism (1986’s Salvador), and who converted to Buddhism while shooting Heaven & Earth, was never going to be so hands-off. While writing the screenplay Stone would meet with Snowden nine times over 18 months.

“By my third visit he trusted me to tell the story based on how he saw it,” the director says. “I spent a year and a half getting a lot of information that nobody knew before. Nobody had talked to him about classified programmes like Heartbeat before. Nobody had been inside the National Security Agency except for the employees, and they don’t talk. We don’t know the simplest details. We don’t know what the dialogue is like in there. We don’t know the work conditions. I’m not a computer buff. His world is strange to me. My characters usually talk a lot. They’re very rarely desk clerks.”

In 2014 Laura Poitras’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Citizenfour, offered a meticulous portrait of how Snowden collaborated with journalists – notably Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill – to break the story about NSA spying. Stone’s Snowden goes further in its exploration of the technology.

“The Russians find our current situation very ironic,” says Stone. “As good as they were at listening and monitoring at the KGB, they never thought to devise anything as monstrous as this. Satellites in space 22,000 miles high. About six of them now. Listening in on everything. The US has pumped so much money into this. And Britain is not too far behind. It was 2010 that signalled a whole new era in warfare. Snowden was involved in the Chinese side of operations. He helped devise Epic Shelter, a data-back-up programme. He was a soldier and a patriot, and to his surprise that system was used for illegal, offensive purposes and drone warfare.

“And we’re not just destroying enemies. Many allies – Japan, Mexico, different countries in Europe – are being spied on. Just in case they ever change their mind about their alliances.”

Dead in the system

“The budgets have grown enormously in Hollywood. The marketing costs too. So they’re not going to take any risk at all. Especially if you’re making a film that’s critical of the American way. You can make anything as violent as you want, but not if it’s critical of the Pentagon or the CIA. We had a good story, a real story, based on facts. But it could not be told. It was dead in that system.

“I don’t know if I can keep making films in America. I wish I could be JK Rowling, But I don’t believe in magic. It’s a nice escape route. The smaller films have got so small you can barely see them. We were eventually adopted by Open Road [Productions] in France but only after Germany had committed heavily. Because they respected Snowden.”

As indeed does Stone, who has also campaigned on behalf of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. “We owe him a huge debt. He’s a hero for our time. He has just been misidentified. Whistle-blowers like him inside governments, corrupt governments, wherever they are, are heroes. Without them we have no chance of breaking through the false narratives that are being perpetuated by corporate media.”

Stockholm syndrome

“No. I think that Bush was one of the worst presidents we ever had. I always said so. But I have a role as a dramatist . There are at least two sides to everybody. Your father could be the worst guy in the world. But when you’re his daughter you might understand certain things about him that no one else does. You have to walk in the shoes of the character you are describing. Otherwise you are not really being fair. He has his world view. It has to be his story the way he saw it. I choose sides as a citizen. I have to be more objective as a dramatist. Don’t judge me by my characters.”

Stone, who came to prominence as the screenwriter of Scarface and Midnight Express, has never shied from hot potatoes. He’s reluctant to characterise himself as a political director,yet his work since the turn of the millennium is hardly unengaged: see his documentary portrait of Fidel Castro (Commandante), his stirring 2009 chronicle of South America’s pink tide (South of the Border) and his epic 12-part series charting American history since the cold war (The Untold History of the United States).

“I guess a lot of what I’ve done recently has been about this period,” he says. “The stock-market crash in Wall Street. Bush. I ended The Secret History of the United States in 2013, right before the Snowden story broke. And then I ended up doing his movie. So I’ve been tracking a lot of parallel situations.”   

When he looks back on his earlier, characteristically controversial films, does he think he’d get them into production now? “No. I would say that’s true across the board. With Nixon and JFK definitely. The CIA is involved in Hollywood a lot more. They opened an office there not long after JFK. They’ve drifted away from monitoring movies. But they still influence a lot of them: Zero Dark Thirty, the horrible – well, for me horrible – but well-made 13 Hours. They’ve influenced a lot of TV: Alias, 24, Homeland. Homeland is very well written. But it’s basically a manual for the CIA. It reinforces the official story of the war on terror. These projects are selling the scenario that these are good wars, these are important wars. They keep us safe.”

He laughs. “Even JK Rowling couldn’t have come up with that one.”


“I wish we could say good riddance to Nato, because it’s the most misunderstood and malevolent organisation. And it’s expanding against the treaty that Gorbachev and Bush signed in 1989. They’ve been harassing Russia for a long time.

“There is a reason Russia is paranoid: they ought to be. We’ve abdicated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which has been the foundation of our security since 1972. We’re putting anti-ballistic missiles in Poland, Romania and everywhere we can in Europe.

“I normally vote Democrat. But the world was not headed for a good place while Hillary Clinton was talking war. She never met a war she didn’t like.

“I’m hopeful – and you never know – but I’m hopeful that Trump, as a businessman at least, will get off this kick. Because Nato is making the world very dangerous. Not the Russians. The best thing that could happen is for some of these people to think selfishly, to think, Let’s avoid war, let’s survive, at any cost.”

Snowden is on general release

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.