The NSA’s worst nightmare made his San Diego Comic-Con debut by way of video chat, moments after the first public screening of Oliver Stone’s Snowden.
“The FBI actually gets a copy of this talk because we’re going through Google Hangouts, which unfortunately has a sort of built-in surveillance capability,” joked Edward Snowden, his face peering down on a theater full of critics and journalists. He joined Stone and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley from Moscow, his home for the foreseeable future, “live—from the internet.”
Snowden tracks the NSA analyst as he wrestles with the decision to blow the lid off of the U.S. government’s top-secret global surveillance program, an act that made him persona non grata in America and changed history. The telling of this historic exposé, co-scripted by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, is authorized by Snowden, who appears as himself in the final coda.
After a dazzling thriller of a finale right out of a spy flick (which, yes, involves a certain Rubik’s cube), Stone’s larger aims materialize. News footage of President Obama, seen earlier labeling Snowden a “29-year-old hacker,” is used to pose a question—the question—seemingly to the president as much as the public at large: Is Edward Snowden a spy or a whistleblower? A traitor or a hero?
Snowden will presumably make its official world premiere in September at the Toronto Film Festival, so bringing a tech-oriented political thriller to a July geekfest filled with superhero fans in spandex cosplay was a curious move. But its official release, timed for a fall Oscar berth, is not slated until Sept. 16. Thursday at Comic-Con, on the same night Donald Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination, Stone’s film highlighted the fact that Obama still has time to pardon Snowden before he leaves office.
The opportunistic move of sneaking Snowden into the annual pop culture convention appearance worked. Stone grabbed plenty of attention for Snowden by likening Pokémon Go to a form of totalitarianism during a panel earlier in the day. But that evening, he told The Daily Beast he’s not banking on Obama rescuing Snowden from perma-exile. I asked if the president is likely to even see the film any time soon. “I hope so,” Stone said. “I hope so, but I’m holding no hopes on it.”
Live from the internet, Snowden explained why he got involved in a major motion picture retelling of his life. “When there is enough in the public record you don’t really get to decide if a movie gets made,” he said. Stone was the right director to bring his story to the screen, he said, because “nobody tells Oliver what to do, and that’s not the case with a lot of studios. That’s a distinguisher that I hope shows through in the final message.”
He decided to appear in the movie after Stone flew out to film him for bonus materials, he said. In the film, he professes his newfound purpose while seated at a laptop bearing a sticker for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “defending civil liberties in the digital world.”
According to Stone, it took nine takes to nail Snowden’s scene—the same number of takes it took Trump to film his deleted cameo in Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. “I once directed Donald Trump,” Stone smiled to the crowd. “It was a hard day. The difference between Donald and Ed—and this is true, I love the man in a weird way—after every take [Trump] jumped up and said, ‘Wasn’t that great?’
“The confidence is unbelievable, and that’s what’s allowing him to run,” Stone continued. “I had to say, ‘Donald, I think it’s great but you know what? I think we can go a little bit better here.’”
Stone also revealed that Snowden made a major contribution to the scripting of the film’s climax—a nail-biter that depicts exactly how Snowden managed to get away with the stolen files he would eventually release to the world. In the movie, Snowden anxiously downloads files upon files of documents and hides the SD card inside a Rubik’s cube.
After much suspense, he manages to smuggle the cube out through security, smiling his relief into the open air.
Only that’s not how he really did it.
“We don’t know,” Stone admitted. “None of us know. He’s the only one who knows and one day he may reveal. It was Ed’s idea, his suggestion. We responded to it and ran with it. But it was a good idea. Thank you.”
Snowden did not divulge how that scene really unfolded, but he confirmed that life as an international fugitive isn’t all that terrible. “I can confirm that I’m not living in a box,” he said. “I actually live a surprisingly free life.
“This was not the most likely outcome,” he added. “I didn’t actually expect to make it out of Hawaii. I thought it was incredibly risky… I never thought I would be saved. But I thought the stories might still be able to get out there.”
He slammed the U.S. government—which canceled his passport and made traveling impossible in the wake of the leak—for threatening trade sanctions against countries that offered him asylum.
“Particularly in the case of Ecuador, they literally got a direct threat, I believe from John Kerry, to revoke trade preferences,” he said. “Trade preferences were basically the thing keeping their economy alive—literally, for broccoli farmers and rose farmers. These are impoverished, indigenous farmers, and they were like, ‘We’re going to make sure these people’s families can’t eat if you defend this guy’s human rights.’
“But this is not a criticism about the United States specifically, although that’s heinous in terms of foreign policy,” he continued. “This is truly about the nature of power.”
Earlier in the day, Snowden and Andrew “Bunnie” Huang unveiled plans for a device that would prevent the outside surveillance of cellphones. “We’re not doing productization, we’re not doing sales, we’re not setting up a company or anything like that,” Snowden clarified. “Just saying anybody who wants to do this, here are our findings.
“I love my country. I love the things that we try to do,” he declared. “I have serious policy disagreements with some agencies of government, particularly senior officials. The working level guys by and large are good people trying to do the best they can. But they’re often ordered more or less to do bad things, for what they believe to be a good reason.”
Speaking from exile in Russia, Snowden seemed content given the circumstances. “I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”