Washington Fears Snowden. Hollywood Fears Washington. Is that Why Oliver Stone Made His Movie About Snowden Overseas?

Culture Watch
tags: Oliver Stone, Snowden

Richard Rashke is the author of The Whistleblower’s Dilemma: Snowden, Silkwood and their Quest for the Truth

Oliver Stone’s new movie, Snowden, gives Washington the jitters. The nerve spasms traveled across the U.S. and infected Hollywood, raising the specter of a new age of political blacklisting.

According to Stone, whose movie opened in the U.S. on September 16, Hollywood studios not only blocked the making of the film, they nearly killed it. “We got turned down with a good script, a good cast, and a reasonable budget at every major studio,” Stone told the British Daily Telegraph in June. “Studio heads said, ‘Yes we like it…There is no major problem here.’ It goes upstairs…By the time it comes back, they don’t want to do the movie anymore.”

The rejected Snowden script was as solid as they come. Co-written by Stone and American screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald, it was based on the The Snowden Files, a meticulously researched book written by British Guardian newspaper reporter Luke Harding. The script reportedly got a “thumbs up” for accuracy from Snowden himself.

Spurned by Hollywood with whom he has a love-hate relationship, Stone went on to make a biopic, which he calls an intellectual thriller, with mostly German marks and French francs. He chose a German producer (Moritz Borman) and a German distributer (Wild Bunch). He made Munich his production headquarters and shot most of the movie in Germany with German extras. And he premiered the movie in Canada—not the United States—on September 9 at the Toronto Film Festival.

The only American film company that dared to stand up to Hollywood was independent Open Road Films, which won the best-picture Oscar in 2016 for its controversial film Spotlight about pedophilia in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Open Road Films agreed to distribute Snowden.

Stone raises an intriguing question: Did Hollywood block his proposed film because it was afraid of Washington? Perhaps. But the answer could be less conspiratorial. Maybe studio heads believed that a movie about Edward Snowden—favorable or unfavorable—would be another box office flop. Or maybe they said no because controversy doesn’t necessarily sell movies, unless it’s about sex and money like Stone’s movie Wall Street. Or maybe Hollywood turned Stone away because a movie about Edward Snowden would make it appear that Hollywood supports traitors. Moviegoers could then punish Hollywood at the box office.

As for Stone, he believes Hollywood caved under pressure from Washington. He told the Rockford, Illinois, Register Star in June that, although he didn’t know why Hollywood slammed its door on him, he “suspected that [it was] self-censorship, which happens when you reach the McCarthy-like levels this country has reached, where we’re oppressing the truth as much as possible. So Open Road was very brave to distribute this.”

There is some truth to Washington using pressure tactics to squelch Snowden. With sincere apologies to Oliver Stone, Australian billionaire James Packer pulled out his money from the Snowden movie. According to a June article in the Daily Telegraph, Packer was warned by a knowledgeable friend that he would be barred from entering the United States if he didn’t. Packer’s Ratpac Entertainment financed such blockbuster films as The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Suicide Squad. His withdrawal of funds from the Snowden movie caused more than a dent in Stone’s budget.

Stone’s not-so-subtle reference to Joe McCarthy conjures up images of the Wisconsin senator yelling “commie…red…pinko” at dozens of hapless screenwriters and directors during the now infamous 1954 televised U.S. Senate hearings. A stranger to courage and moral fortitude, Hollywood did everything but genuflect and kiss Joe McCarthy’s ring. Desperate to appear patriotic for pocketbook reasons and afraid of retaliation from Washington, Hollywood moguls fired and blacklisted everyone McCarthy targeted. Why? For one thing, McCarthy could label the entire industry a hotbed of communism and encourage Americans not to see movies out of patriotic duty. Hollywood dancing to Washington’s tune was an old tradition. Tinseltown had gladly fed Americans a stream of patriotic movies during World War II and the subsequent Korean War.

Although the decision not to make a Snowden movie was simple enough for Hollywood studios—it was only one movie, after all—the stakes for the Washington military-intelligence complex were much more serious than a kick in the pocketbook. Washington didn’t try to block the making of Serpico, about a New York City cop (Al Pacino) who blew the whistle on rampant corruption in the NYPD. Bent cops had nothing to do with Washington. Nor did Washington try to block the movie Silkwood, about Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) who blew the whistle on her employer, the Kerr McGee Nuclear Corporation, and the Atomic Energy Commission. The truth about her death in a one-car crash could be safely wrapped in a classified cloak. And Washington didn’t try to interfere in the making of the movie The Insider about Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry. Tobacco and Washington were never passionate bedfellows—except in the halls of Congress. But Stone’s movie Snowden does threaten Washington. It’s about Washington itself—the White House, FBI, CIA, and NSA.

Although opinion polls are as shifty as sand on a beach, most reputable ones reveal that Americans are almost evenly divided over the emotional hero-or-traitor issue. But more important, the polls show that approximately one-third of Americans either do not know who Edward Snowden is, or know next to nothing about him. That places Snowden supporters and Snowden enemies in a serious tug of war to win over the huge pool of undecideds. A high percentage of Americans who have a favorable opinion of Snowden or think he is a hero would most certainly encourage more whistleblowers to come forward. And the last thing the Washington military-intelligence complex needs right now are more whistleblowers.

If Washington fears Snowden, and Hollywood fears Washington, does Oliver Stone have reason to fear Washington as well? Stone told the Hollywood Reporter in March: “We moved to Germany because we did not feel comfortable in the U.S. We felt like we were at risk here. We didn’t know what the NSA might do, so we ended up in Munich.”

Given the threats from Washington, real or imagined, Stone and his production team adopted strict cloak-and-dagger security measures. They gave the film the codename “Sasha.” Was this just another case of movie hype? Or director-producer paranoia? Or was there good reason to fear the long arm of Washington?

Here the plot thickens like a Hollywood movie.

Stone needed long chats with Edward Snowden to plug holes in his story and to get a personal insight into the man who rocked the world. Bypassing Snowden’s U.S. attorney Ben Wizner, who could have set up the interviews, Stone recruited Snowden’s Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena. It reportedly cost Stone one million dollars for nine interviews with Snowden and some additional unwanted luggage—purchase of the film rights to The Day of the Octopus, Kucherena’s hastily written novel about Snowden in Russia; the title of movie advisee for Kucherena; and a welcome mat for him at some of the filming.

The media didn’t pay much attention to Kucherena until freelance writer Irina Aleksander published a detailed account of the making of Snowden in the New York Times Magazine in August.Aleksander exposed Kucherena’s past association with Vladimir Putin as a Putin election campaigner and government security consultant. She suggested that the lawyer still had close ties to Putin. Kucherena has vigorously denied that suggestion.

Given the Kucherena association with Putin—even if it is history—one has to ask: Is Kucherena a Putin spy? Is it his job to make Putin look good and Obama look evil? To make Moscow look humanitarian and Washington look Orwellian?

In March, Kucherena granted Russia Today television an interview during which he said: “We understood very well that the U.S. State Department did not want this film.” As a result, he argued, Washington labeled the film “unwanted” and no one in America wanted to sponsor it, forcing Oliver Stone (and Kucherena) to make the film outside the U.S. As proof, Kucherena told Russia Today about an incident during some filming in the United States. “Our crew arrived at a place where Edward Snowden used to hang out,” he said, “and then all of a sudden a secret service squad turned up and a rather intense conflict took place.”

The Russia Today television network is funded by the Putin government.

The final scenes of the Stone-Snowden story are yet to be written. Will Hollywood snub Snowden at the Oscars? Will the Hollywood Foreign Press Association go all out to embarrass Hollywood by awarding Snowden a string of Golden Globe awards? How will the movie influence public opinion? When will the next Washington whistleblower step out of the weeds?