Edward Snowden (left) with Glenn Greenwald in Citizenfour.
Depending on your point of view, Edward Snowden is either a dangerous traitor or a laudable hero.
It’s that split that makes the 31-year-old former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor a compelling – and increasingly popular – cinematic figure. That popularity is demonstrated by the critical reception accorded documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, and the anticipation surrounding Snowden, the new Oliver Stone drama that has begun production in Europe with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role and Zachary Quinto as muckraking journalist Glenn Greenwald.
How Snowden’s decision to leak scores of documents about American surveillance should be interpreted is a key moral mystery of the national security debate and hardly a clear matter even for some of those telling his story.
“I’m endlessly fascinated by Snowden’s decision, his process, his motivation,” says Quinto. “The vast majority of accounts had it one way or another – he’s either one more traitor or a righteous whistleblower. And the question is, ‘Which one is it?’ Or maybe it’s something more complicated than that.”
Contemporary news figures in the Snowden vein can make for weak cinematic sauce (the 2013 Julian Assange movie The Fifth Estate is a case in point). But Snowden is proving resistant to the rule.
Citizenfour, in which Poitras offers an intimate look at Snowden and Greenwald in the Hong Kong hotel room where the documents were leaked, won this year’s Oscar for best documentary.
Sony, meanwhile, has bought the rights to Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide in the hope of making its own movie, and has set James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli for the project, though whether it still moves forward in the wake of Stone’s take is an open question.
Stone’s Snowden – which is backed by a group of US and European companies, and will be released in the US this December – has plenty going for it. It features an all-star supporting cast that includes Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage and Shailene Woodley, and takes matters beyond the Hong Kong hotel room setting of Citizenfour to the sanctuary Snowden sought in Russia. Basically it’s about the battle for freedom (for him) and for extradition and prosecution (for the US government).
To tell the tale, the director and his producing partner, Moritz Borman, have acquired the rights to several books, including Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files.
As of last month, Quinto had yet to reach out to Greenwald, though he was hoping to do so soon. The actor, who said he was mesmerised by Citizenfour, said he hadn’t made up his mind about Snowden’s actions, but said “from his writings, his intellect is indisputable, and it’s clear he has a thoughtfulness and a foresight and a meticulous attention to detail”. Meanwhile, Snowden has emerged from the shadows somewhat as his cinema star has risen. He even weighed in on Neil Patrick Harris’ now-infamous “for some treason” joke at the Oscars.
“I laughed at NPH. I don’t think it was meant as a political statement, but even if it was, that’s not so bad,” he said in a Reddit Q&A. “If you’re not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don’t care enough.”
There’s a long tradition of great whistleblower movies, from On the Waterfront to The Insider to Michael Clayton. Some of the best involve journalists (think All the President’s Men). And Greenwald’s the journalist you want for your big-screen take. He’s a personality in bold colours (try watching Citizenfour without forming a definitive opinion of him) and his backstory has layers.
And Stone can open the story up to new places and scenes that a documentary such as Citizenfour, without the luxury of re-enactments, lacks the ability to do.
Still, can a big-budget globe-trotting thriller capture a complicated figure such as Snowden? A key might be finding the right amount of internal conflict and ambiguity. Though Stone’s politics are often unambiguous, he has surprised in recent years with movies such as World Trade Center and an interesting critique of the financial crisis in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Quinto believes there’s a need for the new film. “Our movie will open things up in a different way and shine a light on other perspectives.”
-Los Angeles Times