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Oliver Stone and the Cast of ‘Snowden’ Discuss the Challenges of Tackling a Historic Decade

How the director and a strong ensemble made one man's life into a story that spans continents.

Oliver Stone - TIFF 2016

Oliver Stone

Daniel Bergeron

[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Spectrum. Catch up on this year’s Awards Season contenders and the latest films On Demand. Today’s pick is “Snowden.”]

The opening titles of “Snowden” explain that the film dramatizes events from 2004 to 2013, but the film was clearly designed to speak to audiences years after that.

“Snowden” is the latest effort from polarizing filmmaker Oliver Stone, who finds himself back in familiar territory, in a firmly political realm. It’s the story behind Edward Snowden’s rise through the CIA before his 2013 whistleblowing efforts, all the way up through the events detailed in Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour.”

In addition to tackling the timeline that took Snowden from army recruit to figure of global import, “Snowden” contextualizes the full scope of his revelations. What doesn’t come through in heated arguments and hushed conversations is on display in hypnotic sequences of psychedelic digital networks, all made up of personal data.

Bouncing around the nine years of Snowden’s life up until his public reveal is a tricky proposition. But using the infamous “Citizenfour” footage of Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room as the throughline, the film finds windows into sequences in locations around the world, from DC to Japan to Hawaii. With globe-hopping and historical perspectives, “Snowden” adds layer after layer of the consequences for Snowden’s actions and the programs that led to them.

“Snowden” is peppered with some fascinating performances. Gordon-Levitt at the top doesn’t turn Snowden into a triumphant figure, keeping Snowden’s inner misgivings and outward concerns muted. As Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, Shailene Woodley brings warmth to the personal side of the journey, away from dimly lit rooms with code-covered monitors. Timothy Olyphant’s charismatic undercover CIA operative, Rhys Ifans’ shadowy mentor figure, and Melissa Leo as Poitras herself all add to a web of lives that give personal scope to the international intrigue.

We had a chance to talk with Stone and the cast at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

In true Stone fashion, every line of this film’s dialogue drips with portent. Conversations contain years, even decades, of subtext and ramification. Does “Snowden” overplay its hand or appropriately address the international anxieties of our times? That’s for future audiences to decide.

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