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The aftershocks of the 9/11 sneak attacks triggered an explosion of America’s surveillance state — which one Oahu resident dared expose.
Three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone has directed and co-written “Snowden,” a feature film about the former intelligence contractor who blew the whistle heard ’round the world, revealing Washington’s top-secret, warrantless mass surveillance of citizens.
The real Edward Snowden, who was also the subject of the 2014 documentary “Citizenfour,” has been living in exile in Moscow since fleeing the U.S. in 2013, having later been charged with violating the Espionage Act.
“Citizenfour” largely recounted the National Security Agency contractor’s spilling of the beans in Hong Kong to journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, who published blockbuster articles based on the document trove he gave them.
In “Snowden,” Stone opens the story up beyond the confines of the room at Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel, where the whistleblower met with the journalists. A master storyteller who won best director Oscars for the antiwar classics “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” Stone dramatizes much of his subject’s life story.
The thriller is quite a romance, too. Actress Shailene Woodley, playing Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, probably has the second most screen time. On their first date, they encounter an anti-Iraq War demonstration, which the free-spirited Mills supports, unlike the more conservative Snowden. Mills is portrayed as a bright, principled woman who may have kindled a moral fire in her boyfriend, a U.S. intelligence employee — unbeknownst to her.
Hawaii has a major role in Snowden, appearing like you’ve never seen it on the big screen, playing an essential role in the intelligence-surveillance-drone-industrial complex. When Snowden worked for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, he lived with Mills in Waipahu’s Royal Kunia neighborhood on Eleu Street. About 20 minutes of the two-hour-14-minute movie is shot and set in Oahu, in addition to subsequent flashbacks to Hawaii after Snowden flies to Hong Kong. The closing credits list a large Hawaii unit (film crew) and thanks the city, state and the state’s tax credits program.
At an Aug. 31 screening near Beverly Hills, Stone described “Snowden” as “a dramatization — it’s not intended to be a documentary. But it’s very close to the facts.”
“I imagine that I’ve crossed somebody’s line somewhere. But I don’t feel that I’m an object of pursuit.” — Oliver Stone, on whether he’s ever been surveilled
“I went to Moscow many times to talk to the man himself,” Stone said.
Towards the end of “Snowden,” the protagonist muses on his decision to give up his cushy life in “paradise,” where he comfortably lived with his lover, earning lots of money.
Stone’s “Snowden” is the director’s 20th feature, his first shot on digital format, and arguably his finest fiction film since 1991’s “JFK.” A quarter century ago, Stone set out on the trail of the assassins to try to find out who killed President John F. Kennedy. In “Snowden” he tries to explain Edward Snowden’s true motivations for sacrificing so much.
Stone was interviewed by Civil Beat by phone the day after the “Snowden” screening.
Civil Beat: Hawaii is popularly portrayed as paradise. However, your film shows that Hawaii is not only a tourist paradise but a surveillance hub involved with drone warfare. Tell us about that amazing underground facility depicted in “Snowden.”
Oliver Stone: It’s based on a tunnel that was used in World War II for airplanes. You could actually fit airplanes into that tunnel — it was never used, but it was built for that purpose. … We got the original plans for it from Washington and we were able to digitize a lot of it, put in its size and scope. We used three different locations — one was in Munich, in the Olympic stadium. The other one was in an old post office in Munich going back to the 1930s. We also built a set for some of it. So all the combinations of these things gave it the size and it’s an important base for covert activity, including cyberwarfare, too. Keeping an eye on China.
Tell us about shooting in Hawaii. What actual locations did you shoot in? How long were you there in Hawaii?
We were there for a week. We shot near the tunnel. We obviously couldn’t get in. We shot near, very near, Snowden’s home there, near a golf course. Very close, similar style house. We had beach scenes, roads. It rained every day!
What do you think of the Democratic National Committee document dump from WikiLeaks and Russia’s purported involvement in that? Snowden criticized WikiLeaks over it and Julian Assange accused Snowden of trying to earn Hillary Clinton’s favor.
I’m not going to get into that. I really don’t think the — I’ll say this: The two candidates have not talked about surveillance state or Mr. Snowden or, for that matter, about the wars America’s involved in or, for that matter, about environmental change. This is a strange, superficial election and it seems that the accusations back and forth — the new nature of cyberwarfare, the fact that we don’t know who leaks and does the stealing, because there’s so many proxies, so much protection.
It’s a very risky game to start making accusations. People start accusing Russia — I don’t think they’re accurate and I don’t think the Russian government would involve itself in the U.S. election like that. It would be ridiculous for them if they were caught. And I think it’s a really dangerous kind of Cold War attitude.
So I veer towards the Assange interpretation. And Assange — I’ve met him. He’s certainly no stoolie for anybody. He’s no patriot of anybody’s. He’s very much an independent voice in this world. He’s been outspoken for years and paid a tremendous price. So no, I don’t buy that.
I think the DNC is at fault. The four people who were lying were definitely acting illegally. They’re supposed to act neutral in this context and [were] definitely against Bernie Sanders. There’s a lot at fault here and they’re not looking at it. They’re looking at kind of hysterical accusations against Russia.
Who will you vote for for president?
Jill Stein (the Green Party nominee).
Compare the challenges of telling Snowden’s story to JFK’s challenges?
They’re similar in that there was a tremendous amount of research that had to be done. We threw out 50 percent of our research — there was just too much. Already in the film we’re discussing mass surveillance, drones, cyberwarfare. There was quite a lot, a complex story — very difficult to simplify. We had to dramatize. … We condensed so much material. But I think we stayed truthful to the spirit to what happened.
Have you ever been surveilled?
I imagine that I’ve crossed somebody’s line somewhere. But I don’t feel that I’m an object of pursuit. I’ve been out there a long time. … They kind of know and they can pretty much find out whatever they want. I don’t like the idea, they could — but they would.