Depending on your point of view (or maybe on whether you're Neil Patrick Harris), Edward Snowden’s actions could be read very differently: The former NSA contractor is either, in the end, a dangerous traitor or a laudable hero.
It's that split that makes the 32-year-old a compelling--and increasingly popular--cinematic figure. That popularity is demonstrated by the doc phenomenon "CitizenFour" this season, and now by “Snowden,” the new Oliver Stone drama that recently began production in Europe with Joseph Gordon Levitt in the title role and Zachary Quinto as muckraking journalist Glenn Greenwald.
How Snowden's decision to leak scores of documents about national surveillance should be interpreted is one of the key moral mysteries of the national security debate, and hardly a clear matter even for some of those telling his story.
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"I’m endlessly fascinated by Snowden’s decision, his process, his motivation,” Quinto told Movies Now. "The vast majority of accounts had it one way or another—he’s either one more traitor or a righteous whistleblower. And the question is, which one is it? Or maybe it's something more complicated than that."
Contemporary news figures in the Snowden vein can make for some weak cinematic sauce (see: Julian Assange movie “The Fifth Estate” in 2012). Perhaps it's that we grow tired of the cult-of-personality aspects of the story; maybe we’re just worn out by all the cable-news volleying.
But Snowden is proving resistant to the rule. “CitizenFour," in which Laura Poitras offers an unusually intimate look at Snowden and Greenwald in the now-famous Hong Kong hotel room where documents were leaked, scored best documentary at the Oscars on Sunday, notched strong ratings in its initial airing on HBO Monday and was one of the highest-grossing documentaries of 2014 when distributor Radius released it in theaters.
Sony, meanwhile, has bought the rights to Greenwald’s book “No Place to Hide” in the hope of making its own movie, and has set James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli for the project, though whether it still moves forward in the wake of Stone’s take is an open question.
Stone’s “Snowden"--which is backed by a group of U.S and European companies and will be released by Open Road in December--has plenty going for it. The film features an all-star supporting cast that includes Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Nicolas Cage and Shailene Woodley, and takes matters beyond the hotel room setting of “CitizenFour” to the sanctuary Snowden sought in Russia. Basically it’s about the battle for freedom (for him) and for extradition and prosecution (for the U.S. government).
To tell the tale, the director and producing partner Moritz Borman have acquired the rights to several books, including Luke Harding’s “The Snowden Files,” a Guardian reporter’s look at the pursuit of Snowden as the story was boiling over in the summer of 2013.
As of two weeks ago, Quinto had yet to reach out to Greenwald, though he was hoping to do so soon. The actor, who said he was mesmerized by “CitizenFour,” said he hasn’t made up his mind about Snowden's actions, but did say that “from his writings, his intellect is indisputable, and it's clear he has a thoughtfulness and a foresight and a meticulous attention to detail.”
Snowden himself, meanwhile, has emerged from the shadows somewhat as his cinema star has risen. He even weighed in on Harris' now-infamous "for some treason" joke at the Oscars.
"To be honest, I laughed at NPH. I don't think it was meant as a political statement, but even if it was, that's not so bad," he said in a Reddit Q&A on Tuesday. "My perspective is if you're not willing to be called a few names to help out your country, you don't care enough." (Greenwald was less amused.)
There’s a long tradition of great whistleblower movies, from “On the Waterfront” to “The Insider" to “Michael Clayton.” Some of the best involve journalists (see: “All the President’s Men"). And Greenwald's the journalist you want for your big-screen take. He's a personality in bold colors (try watching "CitizenFour" without forming a definitive opinion of him) and his backstory has plenty of layers, as revealed even by small glimpses of he and partner David Miranda in Brazil, where the couple lives. And Stone can open the story up to new places and scenes that a documentary like "CitizenFour," without the luxury of re-enactments, lacks the ability to do.
Still, can a big-budget globe-trotting thriller, usually forced to choose between hero and villain, capture a complicated figure like Snowden? Key to that might be finding the right amount of internal conflict and ambiguity. And though Stone's politics are often well, unambiguous, he's a figure who's surprised in recent years with movies like "World Trade Center" and a hardly cut-and-dried critique of the financial crisis in "Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps."
Quinto added that, despite both those expectations and the stream of coverage on Snowden specifically, he believed there's a need for the new film. “I think our movie will open things up in a different way and shine a light on other perspectives," he said.