Black Friday

The Edward Snowden Story Goes To Hollywood

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

September 13, 2016

This article is based on a lengthy and though-provoking piece appearing in the New York Times, which chronicles the events that led to the making of a movie about Edward Snowden. At first glance, it seemed like a good match, and something easy to achieve. After all, it brought together a controversial young dissident (Edward Snowden) with a compelling backstory, and an anti-­establishment liberal director (Oliver Stone), who is in the business of storytelling.

That was the genesis of Edward Snowden leaping from relative obscurity in exile, into the limelight and onto the big silver screen via the vision and efforts of director Oliver Stone. Probably it is whether you view the NSA’s surveillance as necessary or unconstitutional will determine if you pay to see the movie, or even what you think about the project.

In Hollywood parlance, a rags-to-riches story is usually a formula for sure-fire success and this saga has elements of that (minus the rags and riches  part!). For Snowden did rise from obscurity to notoriety – from an average middle-class American upbringing, to the notoriety resulting from his revelations three years ago. Those disclosures set the nation on its ear, while in the process touching off a torrent of either praise or condemnation from predictable parts of the political divide.

By now the story is well known, having been hashed and rehashed from all angles over intervening years. The Guardian published his leaks, and they were sensational. Not only has the NSA. been monitoring the calls, emails and web activity of millions of Americans, but it also had tapped into the networks of Google, Yahoo and other companies to do so.

By the way, if you’d like some political perspective to help you wade through the morass that is the current US presidential election now well underway, at the time of the leaks, Hillary Clinton branded him a traitor and criminal who should face charges. Not to be outdone, the bombastic Donald Trump called for his execution.

Predictably, politicians and pundits, prosecutors and advocates, weighed in on the controversy and sought to cash in on the frenzy by pandering to their diverse bases of support. So it is little wonder that the epic should grab the attention of Stone, who won an Oscar in 1990  anti-establishment, anti-war film “Born on the Fourth of July.”


Of course, since Edward Snowden was to be the principal character and protagonist in the film, his cooperation was imperative, though this was not as easy as it seems and it would require much manipulation and massage. Not only was Snowden reluctant to sell his life story for money, he felt it would fuel the passions of his detractors, who would say that his revelations were ultimately about personal fame , fortune, and general aggrandizement.

Snowden was cautious at first, but ultimately agreed to meet with Stone, if only to make sure that the film told an accurate story. He was on the horns of a dilemma, though, torn between clearly not having any formal connection to the project, and not deriving any benefit from it, but also not wanting to just be completely helpless and without any input. Snowden was between a rock and a hard place in that. Because of the machinations of his advisors and representatives, bent on cashing in on the opportunity, the film would be made regardless of his participation.

Ironically, this was a similar predicament he faced three years ago with the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, and documentary maker, Laura Poitras. They were going to publish his leaks with or without his cooperation. Eventually, Snowden relented and opened up to Stone about his life, which meant that the project had a better chance of success. Selling it to a major studio is an entirely different matter, however.

Incidentally and curiously, one fly in the ointment was that Stone’s effort had some competition for studios’ attention and investment. Greenwald’s own account of the  Snowden saga, No Place to Hide  was optioned by Sony a year earlier. Moreover, with a US presidential election looming, studios are reluctant to deal with such a hot-button, controversial project. Of this, Stone opined that “this is why corporations owning movie studios is not a good idea.”

So the race was on to garner independent financing, while pursuing candidates both bland and believable-enough to be cast as Edward Snowden.  In the end, the project was accepted by the distributor, Open Road, and to lend a touch of authenticity, Snowden makes a cameo appearance.

My efforts here are but a precis of the many twists and turns chronicled in the New York Times Magazine. To get a clearer understanding of the herculean efforts exerted to make this film a reality, you are advised to read the entire article. For the events leading to the making of “Snowden” are as convoluted as the original Snowden epic of leaking the material, complete with repercussions, including the political fallout.

One particular line from the film uttered, by Snowden’s NSA boss, Corbin O’Brian (after George Orwell’s character in 1984), stuck with me: “Most Americans don’t want freedom,” O’Brian tells Snowden. “They want security.” After my recent article about Big Brother, I wonder what this portends for the future vis a vis the upcoming national elections in the US.

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