'Snowden' Stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley on Understanding "Complexity" of NSA Leaker
Director Oliver Stone and his co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald explain why they weren't hesitant to make a movie about someone whose story is still developing.
In 2013, when Edward Snowden famously disclosed classified information from his time working for the National Security Agency, including the existence of U.S. government surveillance programs, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who would go on to play Snowden in the 2016 Oliver Stone movie of the same name, wasn't paying particularly close attention to the news.
"I heard about it like we all did, but I didn't really look into it that deeply, so I didn't really know a whole lot about it," Gordon-Levitt told The Hollywood Reporter of his initial impressions of Snowden's revelations. "And it wasn't until the next year when Oliver offered me this job that I started looking into it for myself."
Once he started working on Stone's film, Gordon-Levitt discovered that the story of the man who's been alternately called a "hero" and a "traitor" has more nuance than either word conveys.
"This is a really complicated story, which is funny because the first thing you find when you Google 'Edward Snowden' is there's all kinds of opinions about him but they're all kind of simple — everyone's saying words like 'hero' or words like 'traitor.' They're kind of all overly simplistic, and it's not a simple story, it's really complicated, and I really enjoyed getting to dive into that complexity," Gordon-Levitt added, speaking to THR at Snowden's New York premiere earlier this week. "It's not something we often do these days in our culture. I feel like we're often looking at lots of little stories for brief amounts of time rather than diving into one story for a more in-depth period of time, so I found that really fulfilling."
Gordon-Levitt's co-stars Scott Eastwood, Ben Schnetzer and Zachary Quinto (who plays journalist Glenn Greenwald, who helped Snowden go public with what he knew) had similar experiences with their initial understanding of Snowden's disclosure and learning the story behind the headlines.
"I think I felt like most Americans — that's really intense and it probably has little to do with me," Quinto said of his first reaction to the news. "And then the more I read and got into the revelations of these documents, the more I realized how vulnerable all of us are and how much this really affects the entirety of American culture."
Eastwood — who plays Snowden's boss shortly before he reveals what he knows, a character that the actor said is an amalgamation of multiple people — told THR that working on the movie gave him a sense of the dark side to the still-young online universe.
"I learned that there's a lot that goes on in the internet that we don't know about, a lot that goes on in the government that we don't know about and we're only just scratching the surface of it," said the actor. "The internet really is in its infancy stages, it's very young, so to start to see the underbelly of it is very interesting."
For Shailene Woodley, who plays Snowden's longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, what the former NSA contractor revealed confirmed her earlier suspicions.
"When the iPhone came out I remember with my friends we were joking, 'Oh, it's Big Brother. They're going to be able to record; they're going be able to listen.' We used to laugh about these Orwellian theories and then when Ed [Snowden] did disclose that information it did validate and confirm all of those suspicions," the actress told a group of reporters at Tuesday's premiere screening at New York's AMC Lincoln Square theater. "It didn't make me paranoid, it didn't make me afraid, but it did open my eyes to a world in which we as citizens don't necessarily live in a democracy in which the government is willing to be held accountable by its citizens, which is the definition of democracy. So how do we reinstate that? How do we empower ourselves to hold our government accountable? The way that we do that is by having whistleblowers like Edward Snowden."
Snowden's story is still unfinished, with the NSA leaker still living in exile in Russia and Stone himself saying that there's things Snowden hasn't revealed yet.
But the veteran director wasn't hesitant about jumping into Snowden's story with both feet.
"I believe he did the right thing and he gave all of that information to three [journalists] and he said go through it technically, so he was leaning on them to do the right thing. In other words, he did not want responsibility for that part of it," Stone told THR. "He said, 'Use your own sense of responsibility. You're representing the public, too, your newspapers.' I always believed him. A spy doesn't give away the information to the newspapers; a spy would do it for money."
Co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald felt it was important to offer a detailed account of what Snowden did so people fully understand him.
"One of the biggest problems right now with the way Edward Snowden's discussed in the media is that it's many times wildly inaccurate. And certainly the public at large, I think, still doesn't have a great sense of who this guy was," Fitzgerald told THR. "There are a lot of people who work in media who get a story but, in the rest of the country, the facts are needed for people to have an informed opinion. And we needed to convey those facts in a way that was dramatic and interesting and held your attention for a couple of hours. But I really do believe we are attempting to offer to the conversation a way that gives people an opportunity to make a real informed decision as opposed to a soundbite they get on the news one day or a piece of the Wikipedia article. This is the whole story of how we went from A to B and that's important for the country to know."
Nevertheless, putting together a complete story sometimes meant that Stone's team had to fill in the gaps on things Snowden couldn't publicly disclose. Technical consultant Ralph Echemendia, who also attended the New York premiere, said that it was his job to "fill in the blanks technically."
"There was a lot of information that they would bring back from meeting with Ed [Snowden] that we would have to sort of fill in the blanks technically because he was also very careful in not telling us certain things that have not yet been disclosed in any way, so we had to work around that to make it real and make it authentic enough without having the full technical details," Echemendia said. "We did a lot of work with the writers and with the graphics department and production designer, all that kind of stuff of what's on the screen, what's the situation and ultimately made it as authentic as possible."