Why Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ Belonged at Comic-Con

The upcoming biopic by one of America's "most patriotic filmmakers" (Joseph Gordon-Levitt's words) had a big day at last week's Comic-Con. But why?
Oliver Stone at Comic-Con 2016.

If you weren’t buried in the midst of panel discussions featuring the latest superhero tentpoles and other costumed antics last week, you might have gotten a chance to see Edward Snowden. While on the surface, the arrival of an international fugitive responsible for the single largest data leak in U.S. history might seem out of place. But Oliver Stone’s upcoming feature film “Snowden” actually fit in well, especially given that an evening screening was followed by the opportunity to hear Snowden speak for himself.

For Snowden doesn’t think “Snowden,” the film, is all that fictionalized. Just after viewing Stone’s depiction of his life story to date, IndieWire asked Snowden — who appeared via a remote video feed — what changes he was happiest about in the process of adapting these events for the screen. His response: not much had been changed. While admitting that certain characters had been consolidated and details streamlined, Snowden admitted that the movie had its fact straight. “In terms of the actual issues,” he said, “it’s pretty on the money.”

READ MORE: Why Oliver Stone Is Still Hopeful About The Power of Movies After The ‘Nightmare’ of Making ‘Snowden’

If “Snowden” isn’t fiction, then what was it doing at the San Diego Comic-Con, a five-day celebration of pop culture that glories in defying the real? The easy answer is that in the last decade or so, Comic-Con has shifted from a nerds-only event for comic book fans to a major marketing opportunity for studios. But after attending both the film’s official Comic-Con panel presentation as well as a later screening and Q&A, its presence at the gathering made an awful lot of sense.

The film’s deep investment in technology and activism, as framed by the story of how one intelligence operative’s moral quandary became a world-changing event, has massive implications for all Americans. And having Snowden, Stone, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley and Zachary Quinto on hand proved essential to putting things in context — and understanding why “Snowden” might be one of the fall’s most important films.

Oliver Stone Pops His Comic-Con Cherry

If you’ve never attended Comic-Con, it’s worth noting that Hall H is the biggest room of the convention, where all the headliners tend to showcase their biggest properties. This Thursday, “Snowden” was presented in between Dreamworks’ upcoming animation slate and exclusive footage from the highly anticipated Luc Besson sci-fi epic “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”

Between “Trolls” and aliens, things got real. The “Snowden” panel opened with a video reel celebrating Stone’s legacy — not just his films, but the films and TV shows which have referenced his work over the years, including “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld.” Stone strode out to huge applause; when asked by moderator Dave Karger if the reaction matched with his expectations, Stone simply replied “Yes.”

“Snowden”Open Road Films

The panel itself wasn’t exactly a laugh riot, but the audience was engaged, especially given the fact that Stone is not shy about speaking his mind. When it came to financing the film, he was very open about the fact that “we were turned down by every major studio.” (The film was largely financed by French and German companies, with Open Road bringing it to the United States.) According to Stone, the film’s financial difficulties weren’t the result of government pressure, but because of “self-censorship.” More specifically, he added, “every corporate board of the studios said no.”

Snowden the Man

You learn a lot about Snowden in the film as well as from hearing people discuss it — his military career, his medical issues — but at the same time, he’s a defiantly private person. “He’s still a mystery,” Stone said, unable to even answer the question of how much of his previous work Snowden had seen before agreeing to engage with the film.

Whatever privacy he’s been able to maintain about his life despite all this scrutiny, Snowden seems more than happy to hold onto it. “I don’t think anyone looks forward to having a movie made about yourself — especially a privacy advocate,” he said after the screening. “But when there is enough in the public record, you don’t really get to decide whether or not a movie gets made.”

Edward Snowden appears at a Comic-Con screening of "Snowden," via Google Hangout.
Edward Snowden appears at a Comic-Con screening of “Snowden,” via Google Hangout.

About That Snowden Impression

In order to study Snowden’s particular cadence, Gordon-Levitt actually recorded segments of him speaking in the documentary “Citizenfour” — events from which are dramatized in the film — to practice his delivery. During the panel, Karger asked if Snowden had provided the actor with any feedback on his interpretation. Gordon-Levitt said he hadn’t, because the actor had never asked for it.

Of course, later that day, with Snowden himself on the line, Karger followed up. Snowden declined to provide an exact answer, pointing out that no one’s voice sounds the same out loud as it does in their heads. But he did say that family members of his were impressed by Gordon-Levitt’s interpretation. “If he can pass the family test, he’s doing all right,” Snowden said.

Okay, One Thing That Wasn’t Accurate: The Rubix’s Cube

This might be a bit of a spoiler, but it’s also one of the most dynamic moments of the trailer — to sneak out the leaked data, Ed hides an SD card in a Rubix’s Cube, then tosses it to an unknowing security guard as he goes through a metal detector.

Time for a reality check: That’s not actually how Snowden actually got the data out. It’s one of the film’s few embellished moments. According to the cast and Stone, no one actually knows the truth of what happened, except for Snowden.

However, the Rubix’s Cube bit was Snowden’s suggestion. “It was a good idea. Thanks, Ed,” Stone told Snowden during the post-screening Q&A.

The “1984” Influence

While Snowden’s experiences provided the main template for the film’s narrative, Stone noted one other significant source that preceded the real-life events: George Orwell’s seminal dystopian novel. In fact, it’s no accident that the composite character played by Rhys Ifans (a name that Stone struggled to pronounce more than once) is named O’Brien — the character who served as both mentor and nemesis to “1984’s” Winston Smith.

It was a theme that persisted during the discussion of what the government surveillance that Snowden leaked actually means. As we previously reported, when Stone was asked what he thought about the popular mobile game “Pokemon Go,” he took the question more than seriously than anyone could have anticipated. Referring to it as a “new level of invasion,” Stone described the game as “surveillance capitalism,” which manipulates our behaviors and allows corporations to mine that data for profit. “It has happened a bit already out there on the Internet,” he said, “but you’ll see a new form, frankly, a robot society where they all know how you want to behave.” He then called the end result as he saw it: “Totalitarianism.”

Orwell’s fiction — and our new reality? Because the post-screening Q&A was conducted via Google Hangout, according to Snowden the FBI will be getting a copy of the conversation. That means the FBI has a video/audio record of me talking to a federal fugitive, which may put me on a list… and, after seeing the film, has me wondering if I should start taping up the camera on my laptop.

Why This All Matters

If there was one message, it was this: “Snowden” is hoping to reach the younger generation. Zackary Quinto (who plays journalist Glenn Greenwald) did the best job of justifying “Snowden’s” presence at Comic-Con: “The people in this room and the people at this convention are in so many ways the absolute core of the message of this film,” he said. “You just see all the phones up and all the technological connections that you all have…The responsibility is yours, to know what’s going on.”

Oliver Stone and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Oliver Stone and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.Indiewire

Did the Comic-Con audience get “woke,” as the kids say, to the massive implications of “Snowden’s” (and Snowden’s) message? Maybe not. But the crowd did love Gordon-Levitt’s Hall H entrance in an American flag T-shirt, which was not worn by accident.

“I’m sitting alongside one of the most patriotic filmmakers in the history of American cinema,” Gordon-Levitt declared. “And that’s a lot to do with what this story’s about. Being a patriot in the United States is not just about unquestionably saying that everything is good — if you love something and you see something wrong about it, you raise your hand and you talk about it and you try to fix it. And that’s what I think his movies have done for decades, and I was really proud to be invited into one of his films.”

If you were wondering if Stone and the “Snowden” team have a neutral opinion about Snowden’s actions, let this guide you. During the panel, Karger asked each of them to say whether or not they agreed with certain words that flash during the main trailer, specifically “patriot,” “traitor” and “hero.” All of them refused to endorse the word “traitor.” But “patriot” and “hero,” they had no problem with.

“Snowden” premieres in theaters September 16. 

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