Oliver Stone says paranoia is par for the course

Movies: Snowden press conference at TIFF 16

The director and stars of Snowden say they now put bandaids over the cameras on their computers and have a new appreciation for what freedom really means

By Katherine Monk

TORONTO — It didn’t take long for Oliver Stone to affirm his public reputation for being a little paranoid, calling President Obama “the most efficient managers of the surveillance world,” pointing out the presence of “rockets 200 miles in space peeking in on us” and accusing the U.S. government of “lying all the time.”

In other words, it was everything you could have wanted out of an Oliver Stone press conference. This time, the director of JFK and Nixon was speaking about Snowden, his latest feature screening at the Toronto International Film Festival starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as whistleblower Edward Snowden and Shailene Woodley as girlfriend Lindsay Mills.

“It’s out of control,” Stone said, citing Snowden’s own words from a recent interview. “What the government is doing is illegal and they keep doing it and they get better and better at what they are doing. So this is a very upsetting story, but it’s also a drama. So it’s a great combination… it’s like working on JFK, it gets into stuff we don’t know about.”

A thriller that follows Snowden’s life over the course of nine years, Snowden is more than a dramatized account of the events we saw unfold in Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour.

Filling in the background gaps of Snowden’s life, the film explores the foundation of Edward Snowden’s world view and it’s not the past you might expect from the man branded a traitor by the US government, currently exiled in Russia.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the title character, said he was surprised to find out Snowden came from a family with years of government service.

What the government is doing is illegal and they keep doing it and they get better and better at what they are doing. So this is a very upsetting story… – Oliver Stone

“Before Oliver asked me to do this part I knew very little about Edward Snowden,” he told a room full of reporters at the festival press conference Saturday.

“In learning about him I found out his father was in the Coast Guard, his grandfather was with the FBI. He comes from a family that is very reverent and allegiant toward United States. He enlisted in the US army in 2004 and I didn’t know that. In 2004 — that was the most dangerous part of the Iraq war and he wanted to fight for his country.”

Gordon-Levitt says those pieces of information made Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle on government enabled surveillance far more interesting from a character perspective and made him reflect on the very nature of patriotism.

“There are two types of patriotism: There’s the kind where you are allegiant to your country no matter what and don’t ask questions, but there’s another kind of patriotism,” he says.

“There’s the kind of patriotism that he grows into over the course of the nine years you see in this story, where he does ask questions. And that’s the privilege of coming from a country like the United States: We have the freedom to ask those questions. To hold government accountable. That’s what was motivating him to do what he did, and I wanted that to be clear.”

Shailene Woodley says she’s been forced to think about privacy as a celebrity, but the world of social media is one with a certain amount of control, she says.

“Personal privacy is a privilege… but only if you are privy to it. For me, it’s social media you are aware of what you are putting out there. It’s sort of the subliminal thing… [that] when you click an ‘I Agree’ box, or any website, you are agreeing to a whole list of things. If you fall into being paranoid, it’s easy… But I think it’s the awareness. Empowerment comes from awareness.”

When asked if working on the film changed the way they interact with technology, specifically if they stick a bandaid on the cameras on their computers to hamper cyber eavesdropping, just about everybody on the panel that included Woodley, Gordon-Levitt, and co-stars Zachary Quinto and Melissa Leo nodded in the affirmative.

When a Moscow-based reporter asked Stone if he received cooperation from the Russian authorities in order to make the film, and visit Snowden nine times throughout production, he said ‘no.’

“I had no dealings with Russia outside of dealing with [Snowden’s] lawyer… and he’s been critical of the Russian state because their recent surveillance legislation is pretty harsh. It’s legislation akin to American legislation… but no other country in the world gave him asylum. Everyone seemed to be scared of the US. But it’s more of an American world now.”

Stone said President Obama’s administration has prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act than any other in history. “It’s an all-time record,” he said.

Stone said he hopes the movie will help people understand what’s actually happening, and the importance of Snowden’s actions. Perhaps, it could even facilitate a return to the U.S. — something Snowden desires.

“Maybe this will help… maybe the documentary [Citzenfour] will help. But anyway, here we are,” he said. “We’ll never know the whole story. We’re already so far behind.”


Snowden will be released in theatres September 16, 2016.

THE EX-PRESS, September 10, 2016


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