Toward the climax of Oliver Stone's Snowden, a powerful government official video links into a meeting room where he appears on a monitor that — for whatever reason — spans an entire wall. Throughout the scene, his enormous head glares down at Snowden.
Frankly, the staging felt ridiculous. At least until I was put in that very same situation only moments after watching this scene last night. I was seated in a movie theater as Edward Snowden's head appeared on-screen, staring out across the audience.
Snowden was calling into a secret Comic-Con screening of Snowden. It was the movie's first public performance, although it was a quiet affair limited to a handful of journalists, as well as a nice older couple whose names I believe were Harriet and Bob. (They excitedly pointed out when Oliver Stone briefly took a seat three rows in front of us.)
Also present were Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Snowden, and Shailene Woodley, who plays Lindsay Mills, Snowden's longtime girlfriend. But despite the Hollywood star power, all interest — including from the filmmaking crew — was on Snowden. The obvious question being: what did he think of the film?
"I don't think anybody looks forward to having a movie made about themselves," Snowden said at one point. "Particularly someone who is a privacy advocate."
It's easy to imagine Snowden taking issue with Snowden. It takes liberties with his story, makes him seem like an awful boyfriend, and at times plays devil's advocate to his politics.
Snowden actually plays Snowden in ‘Snowden,’ for a brief moment
But here's the big surprise: Snowden isn't just in support of this movie — he's in this movie, taking over from Gordon-Levitt to play himself in a brief but powerful cameo. "I think there's kind of a magic" to it, Snowden said. Later adding, "It was something that made me really nervous, but I think it works."
The interesting thing about Snowden is that it's not really a thriller. It's not even really a biopic. It's more like an educational play-by-play of everything that we've been discussing over the past three years thanks to Snowden.
The movie doesn't just describe, at length, what XKeyscore is, it goes so far as to find time for a "But I don't have anything to hide" debate. And it does this for every surveillance program and every common argument you can think of.
The film lets everyone get their voice in — from the government official who sees spying as critical to national security, to the CIA / NSA employees questioning what they’re doing, to the citizen who doesn't really care what's happening — and generally treats them all with respect. Snowden certainly sides with Snowden, but it lets even the government figures make a fine argument, even if they ultimately appear quite callous.
"I don't think anyone in politics is really charismatic enough to connect with people on these issues that are so abstract," Snowden said. He appreciates the film because it's a way to "reach new audiences in new ways and get people talking about things that they don't have time to read or look for in the academic sense. Right? Nobody's going to go out and read 3,000 articles that have been written about this or scrutinize Congressional testimonies."
Stone said he convinced Snowden to get on board with the film over the course of three or four meetings in Moscow, where Snowden is now living. "He cooperated with us," Stone said during a talk earlier in the day. But even with Snowden's cooperation, much of the film had to be fictionalized. "There are things we don't know and things that he will hopefully one day reveal in a book of his own."
The Rubik’s Cube “was Ed's idea”
Among those open questions is precisely how Snowden snuck files out of the NSA. In the film, he puts a memory card inside a hidden compartment in a Rubik's Cube, then walks out. That moment appears in the trailer and has earned the film a bit of ridicule for playing into the silly "Rubik's Cube = quiet genius" shortcut that so many movies use. Snowden still declines to say what actually happened, but Snowden's use of a Rubik's Cube was apparently his idea.
"It was Ed's idea, his suggestion," Stone said. "We responded to it and ran with it."
Regarding his appearance in the film, Snowden is quick to admit that his shoot could have gone better. So is Stone. “He talks so well in interviews, but it's so hard for him to become someone [else],” Stone said.
There was, at least, one worse celebrity cameo that Stone could recall shooting: Donald Trump. "I love the man in a weird way," Stone said. "But after every take he jumped up and would say, 'Wasn't that great?' And I'd say, 'Honestly, no.'"
Snowden cut in: "I'd rather avoid that association."