“Snowden,” Oliver Stone’s best movie in years, benefits from the same biopic approach as “Born on the Fourth of July,” by giving us the personal story and not just the inner workings of the intelligence community that we gleaned from Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning “Citizenfour” documentary.
“Snowden” is a gripping narrative about the changing perceptions of the whistleblower (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he moves from idealism to disillusionment— while remaining a patriot. The film’s editors Lee Percy and Alex Marquez helped to humanize the NSA contractor’s life and what motivated him to leak thousands of classified documents to journalists, exposing covert global surveillance programs.
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While exploring the covert world of spying and complicated computer tech, Stone focuses heavily on Snowden’s relationships, particularly with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who broadens his ideology, and CIA recruiter and mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), whose surname was lifted from George Orwell’s “1984.”
“When I first read the screenplay [by Kieran Fitzgerald and Stone] and when I first met with Oliver, it was about the emotional story, even though it has great political import and Oliver certainly makes his points,” said Percy, who started editing in New York after Marquez did the rough assembly in Germany; they later collaborated together. “It’s structured as an emotional journey, [which] is an effective way to tell the story. And it makes it very human and something that audiences can relate to about the man [and his struggles and sacrifices].”
“Snowden” traverses most of his adult life in flashback, using the framing device of his interactions with Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian (Tom Wilkinson) and “Citizenfour” director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in a Hong Kong hotel. It covers Special Forces basic training with the Army and his quick discharge after breaking his legs; his recruitment into the CIA at the height of the Iraq War in 2006 (where he aces a five-hour test in about 40 minutes); his romance with Mills; working with Dell on the CIA account in Geneva and Japan, and finally in Hawaii with Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton.
The introduction of Snowden and most of the first act was one of the most challenging to edit. “Scenes in the Army barracks, when he meets Lindsay, were places I could go over the rough assembly and compact things and jump things ahead,” said Percy. “Later both of us concentrated on the middle of the film because that’s where Ed begins to turn. It’s a difficult section because there’s a lot of information and a lot that needs to be conveyed in his head.”
And the Geneva section was crucial because that’s where Snowden meets NSA hacker Gabriel Sol (Ben Schnetzer), gaining access to security programs and data on Facebook and Google servers and millions of webcam images from Yahoo users.
“This is where things go bad and it’s more than what he bargained for, and, with Lindsay it’s how we all feel at some point: I don’t care if they’re checking my email —I have nothing to hide,” Marquez said. “And he makes a strong case to care about security, because it affects everybody. And this was in 2008 with Obama, who was very much pro opening up and there’s a little bit more of an idealism and Edward wants Obama to win because he [believes] that will change things from the previous administration. And we find out that it doesn’t.”
Stone and his two editors also spent a lot of time finding the right rhythm for the Hong Kong hotel sections without interrupting the main story. This is when they argue about the timing of stories and the fear of discovery escalates before staging Snowden’s escape to Russia, where he gained asylum and now resides.
“We’re enhancing our understanding or bringing ourselves back just when we need an anchor and a springboard that can then leap us through time and space into a new chapter,” Percy said.
When Snowden made his suspenseful getaway to Hong Kong with the infamous Rubik’s Cube, it was tough to get the tension right, but the most difficult section was Geneva, where he becomes an undercover CIA operative, which turns sour and leads to disillusionment.
“It’s exciting like James Bond but then he learns what it means and your morals have to be thrown out the window,” Marquez said.”And we did a last-minute structure change, which helps the Geneva tension, where we moved a sex scene [between Snowden and Mills] after a strip club scene. It’s a lighter moment that has a dark side because of the way [the CIA’s] using a banker and the timing of the [sex scene] and the [appearance] of a computer makes it more impactful vs. breaking it up.”
“We watched the film often because it’s a complicated structure to keep track of all the details and how they were being revealed and how they affected the characters,” Percy said. “It’s a little bit flexible. To some degree, there’s a historical timeline, but there was room within that to change things around. But Joe did a remarkable job of capturing Ed. It’s not an imitation and he imbues it with emotion. But it’s not a character who carries his emotion on his sleeve, so he gives us a convincing Ed and a lead character who’s larger than life.”