The best scene in Snowden takes place well into the movie. Edward Snowden, the hero of Oliver’s Stone’s story and whistleblower/traitor/robot played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is working at an NSA facility in Hawaii. By this point, the motivations for his defining act — to download and reveal classified information about surveillance activities by the American government — have been long-established, and so you, the viewer, can tell the future: Snowden the character may not know for sure yet that he’s going to take those docs, but it’s clear that’s exactly what’s about to happen.
In the film, Snowden relieves the government of its secrets by means of a fitting, character-based flourish: He conceals the jump drive containing the files inside a Rubik’s Cube, then, using his charm, manages to trick security into allowing the cube past detectors. It’s a suspenseful, goofy, and surprisingly fun scene, a moment straight out of the heist playbook, and many people watching this movie might not ever consider the fact that it never happened — or at least, not that way.
“One of the things that, I think, made this such a challenging story for Oliver to tell,” Snowden said via Google Hangout at this year’s Comic-Con, following a screening for the press of Snowden, “is that there are some things that simply aren’t in the public record, and they won’t be for the near future, at least, given the precarious nature of my public situation.”
But in choosing to make a movie about him, Stone had to circumvent this. The act of stealing those documents, and all the others that made up the life of Snowden, had to be shown onscreen — and they had to be shown in a way that might make for compelling, dramatic filmmaking. It’s an interesting twist on the dynamic of so many films based on the lives of people who really lived.
As the subject of a biopic, Ed Snowden is unique. First of all, he’s still not only alive but quite young; while Stone has tackled the living biopic before, most notably with W., which came out toward the tail end of George W. Bush’s presidency, Snowden is 33 to Bush’s 62 (in 2008). Presumably, much of Snowden’s story is as yet untold, including his current campaign for clemency from President Obama.
Beyond that, as the fugitive himself mentioned, another factor influences any rendition of Snowden’s life: It’s kind of a sensitive subject. Snowden is in exile, and his story technically a criminal one. The audience is going in with enough awareness of the actual person to have a general idea of the plot and character arc, but they often don’t know the details — and the joy of these movies comes from experiencing those details, the idiosyncrasies and events that make up a life, through reenactments, ones that have to be entertaining in a way that life often is not.
In discussing the Rubik’s Cube scene in particular — which, in an uneven movie, is the best example of Stone’s attempt to give Snowden’s life a cinematic sheen — the director hinted at the difficulty that exists in this kind of filmmaking, which chooses to turn the complexity of a human life into recognizable genre storytelling.
“First of all, I just wanted to say that none of us know [how it happened],” Stone said at the Q&A, when asked about how they came up with it. “[Snowden]’s the only one who knows, and one day he may reveal it. And number two, it was his idea — it was a suggestion that we responded to and ran with.”
At that point, Stone turned toward the image of Snowden on the screen.
“It was a good idea, thank you,” he said. And five seconds later, once his words reached Moscow, Snowden laughed.