The new Oliver Stone movie Snowden is an old-fashioned biopic, walking viewers through the life of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. However, in sharp contrast to the star-studded comic pageantry of Stone's previous biopic, W, about the life and presidency of George W Bush, Snowden amounts to a pared-down character study, one focused on Snowden's nine-year journey from one political extreme to the other.
When we meet Snowden, as portrayed convincingly in the film by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he's a dorky young Army recruit in 2004 with no qualms about placing himself at the end of the spear on behalf of President Bush. It's quite a start for a protagonist who we know (assuming we read the news) will eventually leak classified information to the press in 2013 and flee to Russia for fear of being charged under the Espionage Act.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for his part, professes nothing but sympathy for Snowden's eventual decision. That anti-establishment sentiment seems like it could have presented a layer of challenge in bringing across some of Snowden's early conservatism, such as a moment early on in the film when Snowden winces at a left-leaning girl he just kissed (Shailene Woodley as Snowden's real-life girlfriend Lindsay Mills) and tells her "you taste like liberal."
We caught up with Gordon-Levitt to find out more about his political past, present, and future.
VICE: You do a vocal impersonation of Snowden. Why did you find that important?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Most of my favorite performances are the sort of chameleon performances, and most of my favorite actors are the ones who kinda disappear. I won't compare myself to those great actors, but that is what I aspire to for sure.
I think it's safe to say the movie Snowden comes out 100 percent in support of the Snowden leaks. Did you initially feel the same when you joined this project?
The truth is, when I was first offered this job, I didn't know very much about Edward Snowden at all, and I had a lot of learning to do. One of the things I learned about, that to me speaks to what you're talking about—why any of this really matters—is that it has as much to do with privacy as it does with government accountability and democracy.
Was there a moment in history that made you feel strongly about this particular issue?
The fact that there was this hearing a few months before Edward Snowden made his disclosures—a Senate hearing. The director of national intelligence, this guy named James Clapper, testified before Congress and was asked by a senator under oath, "Is the NSA collecting millions of records on American citizens?" and he said no. It was an outright lie. To me, when a high-ranking government official like that is just blatantly lying to a senator under oath, our democracy is slipping away, and the promise of what the United States of America is—the reason that I'm so grateful to be born and raised in this country, the fact that the government is accountable to the people—that's slipping away. The founders of our country knew it's human nature. Every government will always try to get more power for itself. That's inevitable, which is why they wrote the Constitution, and gave us the Bill of Rights, which is designed to help the people protect themselves against governments that are naturally always gonna do that. So when that government is violating the constitutional rights of millions of American citizens, and doing so in secret, and lying about it, that's scary.
Right. But spy stuff is kinda cool. Didn't you ever feel conflicted about this kind of thing?
Part of it for me is the way I was raised. My grandfather was a film director and was blacklisted.
"If you're just taking the word of whatever political party, or political candidate you were brought up to support, you're not really looking into it." —Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Right, the guy who directed Pillow Talk.
That was after he was blacklisted. His last movie before that was called Cyrano de Bergerac, and the actor who was in it, José Ferrer, won the Oscar. It's actually a very different movie from Pillow Talk. And it was right at that moment, right as he was coming into his own as an artist that the government instituted this policy. He had been to some meetings, which were nothing more than gatherings at people's houses where they were talking about rights of workers and things like that. The government put him on a list, and he couldn't work anymore. It's sort of in my family to be aware of when the government is doing things that are undemocratic, that are really against what America is supposed to be about.
Was the blacklist thing a big part of your upbringing?
This is before I was born obviously, but my mom was a kid, and her dad couldn't work anymore. They left to LA. They moved to Connecticut. So having that in your story makes you more sensitive to when the government starts doing things that are un-American—ironically since the organization that created the blacklist was the House Un-American Activities Committee, and they were the ones who were as un-American as it gets. The First Amendment of our Constitution is freedom of speech. And the fact that just for having meetings, they were denying people the right to make a living, is really scary.
So you were raised on the political left and got into the family business, which is Hollywood, and meanwhile, Edward Snowden was raised on the political right and got into the family business, which was the government. Did that help you identify with him?
That's a really apt observation, and it's really true. Part of what makes this movie a fascinating drama, beyond a political statement, is that Snowden's upbringing is, in a lot of ways, the diametric opposite of mine. His grandfather worked for the government, his father worked for the government, and his mother worked for the government. When you meet Snowden at the beginning of this movie, you meet a man who is one kind of patriot. And I think there are sorta two different kinds of patriotism, but he's the kind of patriot who just believes that everything the country does is right and doesn't ask any questions. And this is why in 2004, Edward Snowden enlisted in the US Army. He wanted to go fight in Iraq. In 2004, when Iraq was at its most dangerous. So it's in his upbringing to not question. It's in my upbringing to do the opposite.
Right, and then I think the changes between your life and his get even more stark…
He breaks his legs in basic training. He can't go fight in Iraq, but he ends up working for the CIA, and eventually the NSA, and he starts to change. And it also has to do with falling in love with a woman who has a very different mentality than he does. And good drama is always built on a person who changes. So watching him evolve from one kind of patriotism to another kind of patriotism is only possible in a free country like ours, where we are afforded the right and the privilege to hold our government accountable, to ask these questions. Not everyone in the world lives in a country that affords them those rights, but we do, thankfully.
Have you ever had your political beliefs shaken like he did?
I remember one time, I was with a girl—this is years ago—who was from a more conservative upbringing, whose dad was a veteran, and whose grandfather was a veteran. And I remember we went to see the movie Team America. Remember that movie? And Team America is a really funny movie. It starts out very much by toeing the party line on the left side—criticizing the hell out of the government, and America, and the right-wing point of view…
"America, Fuck Yeah…"
"America, Fuck Yeah!" But then by the end of the movie, it also criticizes the hell out of the left wing. And I remember my girlfriend loving watching the movie with me, because I was, like, so into the first part of the movie, and then was surprised the movie proceeded to completely lambast the left. And I think that was good for me. I don't think partisanship in any form is really very useful. As I've said, I was brought up to be more what you would consider left-leaning. But the thing about being partisan is it sort of means you aren't thinking for yourself. If you're just taking the word of whatever political party, or political candidate you were brought up to support, you're not really looking into it.
I hear you're doing a movie about the Klan next. Um, any particular reason?
That's just in the very early stages, but yeah. There was this great article about the sort of early days of the Klu Klux Klan. Obviously, there are so many conversations going on about race relations right now… I guess the reasons are obvious.
Snowden will be in theaters starting September 16.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.