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Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' film opens without much ado

Jochen Kürten / kbm
September 15, 2016

Oliver Stone didn't get funding for "Snowden" in the US. In Germany, he found both financial support and filming locations for his political thriller, but its release is low-key. Is the US trying to keep it under wraps?

Film still from Oliver Stone's 'Snowden', Copyright: Universum
Image: Universum

It was financed with money from Germany and France and is premiering in Canada - not the US. What does that say about Oliver Stone's "Snowden"? Is that not a confirmation of the film's core message - that the whistleblower Edward Snowden's release of top-secret surveillance data and his subsequent persecution by US authorities represent a blow to democracy?

Yes and no. A low-key pre-premiere of Stone's latest work already took place in July at the Comic-Con in San Diego. And the Toronto Film Festival, where "Snowden" officially premiered on September 9, is considered the most significant event of its kind in North America.

On Friday, the film opens in US cinemas, so the American public will have plenty of opportunity to view the critical movie about the country's most famous whistleblower.

Oliver Stone, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Balti Touati
Oliver StoneImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Balti Touati

Still, other big productions from directors as prominent as Oliver Stone are typically celebrated with red carpets, premiere parties in Hollywood or New York, and plenty of press. For "Snowden," these are conspicuously absent.

The US cinema release has also been delayed several times, and the film's next festival appearances will all take place in Europe: Helsinki, San Sebastian, Zurich. It seems that not everyone wants to give the film too much attention.

No money for 'Snowden' and Stone in the US

Even more important than the premiere dates and locations is the fact that Oliver Stone wasn't able to realize his film in his home country. "Every major studio rejected the film. Hollywood is cowardly," Stone told German weekly "Die Zeit," adding, "One big studio after the other turned it down. Of course no one from the NSA told them to leave it alone. It was self-censorship."

Oliver Stone isn't just anybody. The director, who celebrates his 70th birthday on September 15, has become one of the most important and influential filmmakers in the US over the past few decades.

With works like "Platoon" about the Vietnam War, "Salvador" about US involvement in Latin America, "Wall Street," which offers a critical take on the stock market, and conspiracy theories in "JFK," Stone has regularly dealt with his country's domestic and foreign policies.

His films have been successful - but have also garnered criticism from those who've felt attacked by them. Nevertheless, when Oliver Stone doesn't get funding in his own country for a promising project, then that's a reason for speculation.

Edward Snowden on screen at a conference in Berlin, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm
These days, Edward Snowden makes appearances via videoImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Oliver Stone: a concerned citizen behind the camera

As a citizen, he's speaking up because he doesn't want to be silenced, Stone told "Die Zeit." "I admit that my role as an American storyteller is being crossed with that of the American citizen."

For his project about America's biggest enemy of the state, who's been living in exile in Moscow since 2013, Stone had to dig up other sources of funding. Munich-based producer Philip Schulz-Deyle got on board when it became clear that Stone could not scrape together enough money in the US.

Schulz-Deyle gathered the lion's share of the $38-million production costs. "Moritz Borman [Eds. Stone's US producer] asked at the beginning of 2014 whether I could imagine making "Snowden" in Germany even though hardly any scenes were to be filmed there - and whether I'd like to get on board as a production partner," Schulz-Deyle told the industry publication "Filmecho/Filmwoche."

The NSA in Munich

German funds meant that the majority of the film was shot in Germany after all. In Munich's Bavaria Studios, a mock-up of Hong Kong's Mira Hotel - where Snowden found refuge shortly after he first left the US - was built. The catacombs of the city's Olympia Park and the historic Postpalast became the NSA headquarters.

Film still from Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' Copyright: Universum
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the lead role in Stone's 'Snowden'Image: Universum

The film painstakingly traces Edward Snowden's journey. He begins as an ambitious, intelligent and talented young man who wants to serve his country. Over the course of the film, Snowden transforms into an inquiring and critical employee of the US intelligence agency.

At some point, his critical thoughts develop into an urge to do something. Snowden feels it's too risky to go public with his inside knowledge while in the country, so the young IT specialist flees to Hong Kong, then later to Moscow.

Snowden wants to return to US, says Stone

Oliver Stone has turned the story into a gripping political thriller. And it's not a fictional Hollywood tale that Stone is telling. Snowden is still living in exile in Moscow.

According to Stone, Snowden would like to return sooner than later to the US - if he could. But it currently doesn't look like he'd get a fair trial. That's reality - and Oliver Stone's film portrays this reality as accurately as possible.

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