EXCLUSIVE: Oliver Stone opened his 20th narrative feature as a director today with Snowden, a look at the former NSA contractor who exposed a massive U.S. surveillance operation that violated the privacy of its citizens. The film has received some of Stone’s best reviews in years, because of the subtle, non-judgmental nature of his exploration of Edward Snowden’s evolution from a patriot to the disillusioned NSA insider who masterminded one of the biggest security breaches in U.S. intelligence agency history, and landed in Russia. Open Road introduced the film first at Comic-Con and then in Toronto. Stone came to this interview with Bill Binney, an elite NSA officer turned whistleblower who is the inspiration for a character played by Nicolas Cage in the film. They left this reporter’s head spinning with tales of spy craft and deeds done in the name of, or at the expense of, democracy. Binney’s voice is limited here; he may be a close cousin to Snowden, but he doesn’t have three Oscars on his mantel, and he didn’t direct Platoon or write Scarface. Stone turned 70 at Toronto, but has he mellowed? Hardly, as he discussed how no studio in Hollywood would touch Snowden, how too many mainstream war movies have fallen into dangerous hero worship fiction, and why Snowden actually might be the kind of hero the soldier-turned-filmmaker would admire. Buckle up for this ride, which starts with banter about how Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette was just forced by the military to return $6.6 million in proceeds from his book No Easy Day, which detailed how he and others killed Public Enemy No. 1, the 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
'Snowden' Review: Oliver Stone's Powerful Portrait Of The NSA Whistleblower Doesn't Take Sides
DEADLINE: These worlds you dwell in, Edward Snowden included, it’s so hard to figure out the truth. I was just reading about the soldier who wrote how he and his fellow Navy SEALS took out bin Laden. Any bad guy could have collected a $25 million reward, but this guy was forced to give back almost $7 million.
STONE: That’s good.
STONE: Absolutely. I’ll tell you why. I know Bissonnette, I know a couple of those SEALs, and that story is bullsh*t through and through. It would make a great Oliver Stone movie, except that it’s not true. That raid was characterized as a myth by those people. They scored on it. He was supposed to run that book by the DOD. I don’t disagree with that. The guy was out for himself trying to become a star like the other guy. You probably believed him too, the guy who wrote Lone Survivor. His story doesn’t hold up, either. Those guys made up that story. He was the only survivor.
DEADLINE: I didn’t read the book, but I saw the movie.
STONE: They killed about 400 Taliban. They were chased by about seven or eight Taliban. You know when you kill a lot of Taliban for every American that dies that it’s a phony movie.
DEADLINE: One of those slain SEALs, Michael Murphy, is kind of a legend where I come from on Long Island. People are pretty passionate about his heroism.
STONE: Yeah, but that doesn’t make the other guy’s story … the other guy was unstable. I met him too.
DEADLINE: Marcus Luttrell?
STONE: Marcus. He was really nervous and a wreck when I met him. I think the book is more modest than the movie. By the time Mark Wahlberg got ahold of it, it got insane. I mean nothing to do with reality. I mean, every guy that goes down firing, shooting it’s like John Wayne — it doesn’t happen that way in combat. When you get surrounded like that and beaten for position, you get killed fast, you get killed ugly. It’s not pretty.
DEADLINE: What about Zero Dark Thirty?
STONE: I disagree with that entirely. It has been denied already, that torture. … I mean, several people from the CIA came out very strongly, including [Sen. Dianne] Feinstein. She said it’s absolutely nonsense. [Sen. John] McCain came out against it. Torture didn’t work. There’s no record that it worked in that case. Since then [we’ve learned] the way they got tipped off was that the Pakis told them. The Pakis told them that they had the guy. The story was the Saudi Arabians were paying the Pakis to keep bin Laden safe. In 2000, we found out that he was there in the heart of Islamabad. He was on ice. He was finished. He had no real contacts, no power. That organization was splintered already. When we went into Afghanistan after we chased that first party out, there was about 100 Taliban left, according to Carlotta Gall with The New York Times, who worked there. Most of them were hiding in Pakistan, about 200, 300. So we went to war against about 200, 300 Taliban, which was a shame because it was no longer the Osama bin Laden gang. We transposed the war from against Osama bin Laden into the Taliban war.
According to Gall, our troops got there and there was not much to do. So we kept going to the villages, kept provoking the villagers, saying, “Where are they, where are they?” Starting a fight amongst them and over-militarizing and overreacting to the situation. The war simmered, simmered — and then when Iraq started, it heated up again. In other words, if we had not done what we had done and played it much cooler, I think we would be far better off. You should thoroughly read the Seymour Hersh account. It makes sense. It’s only 150 pages, in three phases. It tells how this thing happened. You don’t sneak into Paki air space like that for so many hours. They’re very efficient because they’re worried about India. You don’t get into their airspace and stay there at Abbottabad all night, with one of your helicopters blowing up, and nobody knowing about it. They walked into every single alleyway of that town and they told people, “You stay in. Shut up. You didn’t see anything,” basically.
DEADLINE: It was that simple?
STONE: No, it’s not that simple. It’s complicated, but the U.S. blew the story. You have to read Hersh to understand how it happened. Obama was not supposed to say anything about it. They were supposed to take them out, disappear, wait a few days. Then they’d find this guy dead in the middle of the Hindu Kush somewhere and then they’d have that story. They didn’t want him captured in Abbottabad. That was where they blew the story. The U.S. took credit for it. The Pakis were pretty pissed off.
DEADLINE: But you’re saying that Pakistan wanted credit for helping?
STONE: They didn’t want anything to do with having been identified that he stayed there for all those years while we were fighting the Bush war in Iraq or Afghanistan. They were embarrassed by it. So he was killed in 2012, right before the election. It was about 2010 or 2011 even that we found out about him being there. He’d been there all along, growing sicker, his power diminished. There was no resistance. It was basically a mercy killing.
DEADLINE: The details depicted in Zero Dark Thirty of that part…
STONE: The whole thing was bullsh*t. One of the choppers crashed. Tremendous confusion. There were a couple people in the compound. They killed two or three of them. They went upstairs and found the guy and put a bullet in him right away. Then they took him out and chopped him up or whatever the f*ck they did. I heard they sprinkled him over the Hindu Kush. By the way, those bullets do tear you up a bit. Huge spatter.
DEADLINE: So they didn’t drop him in the sea like they say?
STONE: No. That was a big story. You have to read all the details. Seymour Hersh I respect a lot. He broke the My Lai story. I know him, and he’s got great intelligence. People talk to him from all over the world. It’s like the JFK killing. You cover this sh*t up, man. I’m not crazy. This is a disgusting story because Obama got elected on that basis. That was one of the main pushes for his election. There’s a lot of other lies going on. Read the book, The Killing of Bin Laden by Seymour Hersh.
DEADLINE: There are those who support Snowden being allowed back here, even pardoned. But he gave up covert secrets and now lives in Russia, which itself brings up a lot of questions about what benefit that country had in taking him in…
STONE: Snowden never got rich off of this. I don’t see any sign of it. I don’t feel it from him. I’ve been over there eight, nine times to see him. I never sensed for one second that he had any financial motive at all. You’d feel it from somebody in my business. Nor does he want to stay there. He’d like to get out and come back to this country, and he’s offered to do that as long as he can present some evidence.
DEADLINE: What is his life like over there?
STONE: His life is limited. We never saw his private residence because we always maintained security precautions. I saw him in lawyer offices and I saw him at a hotel. He’s paid legally. He got out of there with a WikiLeaks ticket and since then he’s been speaking sometimes for money, often gratis. Corporations pay him; universities have paid him. European universities and European institutions. He’s done quite a bit, maybe 100 appearances on cable to promote reform of the Internet. This is very important to him. He’s also the president of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He leads a life that’s limited because he’s always been antisocial. Not so much unsocial because he’s lived on a computer. I’d estimate that Ed spends 70 percent of his time on the computer, most of the night. He’s not a man who mixes much with people. Not that he’s scared, but I think he feels comfortable now after two, three years of this. He went over in June of ’13, so it’s three years in June.
Lindsey Mills, his girlfriend of 10 years, has joined him. That’s a big factor. In the movie we played that up because it’s important that people can realize — and the press, I think, had minimized her role as a bimbo, as a woman who was a pole dancer, an aerobics instructor. The truth is, she was an extrovert and Ed was her opposite. I think there’s an attraction of opposites. Her devotion is clear, and I think his connection to her is the most human connection he has and it has kept him going, and helped him reach the decision to do what he did. She gave him a connection to life, to ask why he was there. Was he simply going to funnel information for the NSA, or did he have another purpose in life? For a 29-year-old boy to do what he did is pretty remarkable. I never could have done that. I don’t think you could have at the age. To walk away from your life, and your girlfriend? Remember, at that point in time, he was giving her up, too. Let’s say you fall for this woman, and she’s 10 years in your life. You’re not going to walk away from that. He made a good living; they had a great life in Hawaii. They’re going to have kids. He makes this decision and couldn’t even tell her. In the movie, we gave a sense that he was saying, “I’ve got to do this thing,” and he gave her a sense of it. In real life, we think he had to do it coldly; otherwise she’d be in trouble after he left. They live another life. They have a public standard.
DEADLINE: Before your movie started conversations about him being pardoned, he was characterized as a law-breaking traitor…
STONE: I remember Martin Luther King broke the law. Henry David Thoreau broke the law. The American revolutionaries broke the law. All progress in a sense comes from the protesters, the dissonance of people who stand up for human rights.
DEADLINE: This started with you optioning that book by Snowden’s lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena. How did it progress to where Snowden became directly involved in informing the script and spending hours with Joe Gordon-Levitt as he found the character?
STONE: That was a process. I didn’t want to do this movie. I had been in enough controversy. I had just written the script on Martin Luther King, and I hadn’t been able to pull it off. I was in no mood to do this. In late-January 2013, the Russian lawyer essentially contacted me and asked if I wanted to meet him with my producer, Moritz Borman. I was in China, and on the way back I stopped off in Russia. We met Anatoly, who had written a fiction book about Snowden. Many interesting parts, but it was definitely a novel. There were parts that were interesting. I don’t know if they were true or not, but they were interesting. I read it. I met with Snowden. He was cautious. I was cautious. I went back two more times and in five months, Anatoly had struck a deal, and we felt pretty sure that Ed was going to cooperate with us and talk to us.
DEADLINE: Was Snowden a fan of your films?
STONE: I asked the same question and I never got a straight answer, but I know that he’d seen pieces of The Untold History of the United States. He’s not a movie buff, but he certainly knew my reputation and he said some very nice things to me and he said it to the press. At Comic-Con, he said that I was a guy that you couldn’t tell me what to think. It was an interesting quote. I have to say he’s another generation, and I didn’t understand all the computer-ology of it. I brought in a young writer who I worked with before on a computer movie, Kieran Fitzgerald. I took Kieran back the third time and we went to work. We went back three more times, and once more for me. We showed [Snowden] the script in two stages, and he made very sound suggestions. He wasn’t insisting on anything. He made suggestions, especially with the technical dialogue, which is beyond me. If you watch the movie closely, I don’t believe if you’re in the NSA you’re going to find too many mistakes.
DEADLINE: How difficult was it to mobilize financial support to tell the story of a man many feel is a traitor?
STONE: What happened is over that summer and fall we got to a first draft that we thought was solid. We went out in October and my agent, Bryan Lourd, felt strongly that we could go to the town. I had doubts about it. Bryan said it’s a commercial script. It’s not political. It’s fair. It shows you a sense of both sides, and there’s no reason why it can’t be made. We had that feeling in October that we’d actually get a studio movie going. Much to our surprise and disappointment, that didn’t happen.
DEADLINE: What did?
STONE: That first stage, they said to my agent, we have no problem with this material. That’s the first thing they say. Then they read it and they say, ‘This is great.’ The budget is modest. Actors are young but no stars, but they say they believe it’s a sound project. “We’ll get back to you,” and that’s when it goes up to corporate. In the old days, they’d make the decision and then they’d get back to you. Now I guess it goes upstairs, and it’s like the NSA: You don’t hear back.
DEADLINE: I imagine they all must be very wary after what happened when they made the movie with … the Sony thing and then they got hacked and all of their laundry is on the street and spread to the media. That would make anybody cautious to make a movie about surveillance when a superhero movie is more expensive but somehow less risky.
STONE: Also, you’re dealing with more lawyers. Comcast, I think they had a big merger in front of the government at that point. I suppose at some level they’re worried, about pissing off the NSA, and the government. Snowden is not popular at that point. The government is officially dead set against him. I think a lot of it is self-censorship; they think they’re doing their duty by protecting the government. I think that’s a big deal and it goes back to the Cold War, when we used to do that. Corporations would line up on the side of the government. It’s easier to be pro-America than it is to be critical of America. That’s why we don’t have those 1970s films that you guys write about all the time. We don’t have it anymore.
Instead, we’ve got bin Laden films. I think that’s the way it’s going. Everything, military. Everything, CIA. Look at Homeland. Look at 24. Look at all the Tom Clancy stuff. Generally speaking, since JFK it’s been pretty … Syriana was one exception. Since JFK, it’s been pretty much “we don’t criticize the CIA.” Homeland, you may like. To me, it’s a tension thriller but it’s telling a lie about where we are. It’s setting us up in the wrong place to understand the world. This is the way America is going. You make a pro-America movie. If you’re critical of America — and we should be because there’s a lot of things we’re doing that we won’t admit and we don’t want to look at — I think you’re going to cross that line. And that’s a shame because we’re back to the 1950s standard. You know, make anti-commie films or make anti-progressive films. I feel that way.
DEADLINE: You’ve made provocative films with studio backing your whole career. How did this reaction make you feel?
STONE: I was shocked and hurt. Hurt, because you always go for quality and distribution, you know? We couldn’t even get distribution. It’s not just production; it’s distribution too. In other words, we needed help in Europe and abroad when we went to Germany and France and got the money, but the foreign deals were always shakier without distribution here. So you go to the outlet for the studio in such and such a country and ask for a deal. They’d say, “We love the script, but we can’t do anything because of the home office.” That’s a heartbreaker. I want to tell you how hard it was to get this movie made and how hard Moritz Borman had to work to overcome it. Literally, that guy for months and months, up until now … we’ve been more than struggling for everything to fall in place. We couldn’t get insurance. We had the errors and omissions insurance, which was a huge pain in the ass to get. It was hard to get the cash to make the movie, because we don’t have the right setup for the studios. French bank, this, that. At one point, Moritz was on the line with 12 lawyers in six countries and five banks, just to try to keep this thing together as the shoot date comes up. We postpone the shoot date from January until February. And we’re still working on the script, because there’s a lot of things going on. There’s technical revisions, sets, building the sets without a lot of money, building these type of sets.
DEADLINE: How did you replicate the covert places Snowden worked in?
STONE: The tunnel is made up of three different areas. The German Olympic stadium in Munich. The post office, underneath, it’s a post office from World War II and a set we built that combines all that into the tunnel. It was a nightmare. Even then, we still don’t have British distribution. Britain is very tough on this Snowden case. France, Germany, Wild Bunch and Pathe were great. Jerome Seydoux and also Paul Rassam, they’ve been great to me. Germany, Wild Bunch. And then Open Road comes in. That’s a big deal. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a big deal. They’re a small company, but they’re an honest company. Tom Ortenberg has a great reputation, and they have done a bang-up job. They didn’t put in a great deal of money, but they have fought for this film, had always believed in it, and without them we would be dead.
DEADLINE: Wasn’t there a period where this seemed likely to launch at Cannes?
STONE: They postponed it. We couldn’t deliver in December because we started in February and by the time finished it, it was December. No marketing materials. At that point, they said May for Cannes. Cannes took us, they wanted us. The Europeans were ecstatic about the film. Tom had a lot of guts. He said, “I don’t want to go May in America at that time.” There was Money Monster, a bunch of other films and blockbusters. “We should go September. It’s quieter, more sober.” So he picked a date, and he stuck to it. But that pissed off a lot of our allies because they all fell apart. Now they had to scramble all their distribution and that’s a mess too.
DEADLINE: I remember when you opened the Wall Street sequel at Cannes and the film didn’t come out until fall. It felt like the film peaked too soon. Unless you planned to open Snowden right away, couldn’t the same thing have happened?
STONE: That’s a very good question, and I got into that heavily because the times have changed. But my lawyer, Jake Bloom, said at the time that the film worked at Cannes but the cake was left out in the rain. It should have come out in May, and Tom Rothman regretted that. He said I should have brought it out that month because that’s when it was happening. So, there is that feeling of, don’t wait. You only get one bite at the apple. One chance to make a bang. But the Europeans were really pissed off. You can imagine. Open Road had not put the majority of the money in and because it’s the American market, the tail is wagging the dog.
DEADLINE: You first showed Snowden at Comic-Con, an interesting choice to try and hook in a young audience that is part of this digital age you and I are not. I watched you on a panel with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, and when they asked if you thought Snowden was a patriot, you all raised your hands, and none of you did when asked if he was a traitor. Their hands shot up when you were asked if Snowden was a hero, but you hesitated noticeably before yours finally went up. What warrants Snowden being called anything but a traitor? We all watched the 60 Minutes segments describing how much damage he inflicted on this country’s spy business, an unprecedented breach. What did you learn in making this movie that dispelled that notion?
STONE: I made Born on the Fourth Of July about Ron Kovic, and I could feel after meeting him three times that he was a man of tremendous conscience. By the time I started writing this script, I felt no doubt that this guy [Snowden] is in the same mode as Ron. He believes in what he’s doing. He’s a principled man. At the age of 29. I never thought he was a traitor. Never felt it, never saw a sign of it. A traitor’s behavior is different. If you’re Kim Philby, you live in Moscow. He did it for his ideological reasons, but he wanted to be Russian, he wanted to give up the English. So there was a motive. I didn’t want to take a position publicly because I am a filmmaker, and I’m also a citizen. As a citizen, I have feelings about Snowden, but as a filmmaker I try to keep it balanced. Remember, I made movies about Bush, who I didn’t like as a president. I didn’t like Nixon, and I made good movies about them because I wasn’t taking sides as much as walking in their shoes. That’s my job as a dramatist. I empathize. I go into the shoes of Ed Snowden, and walk like Ed Snowden, and that’s my job. I tell the story. We showed it to 20 people here [in the Hamptons] on a small screen. I don’t think I should use his name, but a journalist told me he liked the way I did this movie. He didn’t like Snowden and he hates Glenn Greenwald [the journalist played by Zachary Quinto]. He said he appreciated being able to walk in the shoes of a man without being forced to take a side, and being able to make up your own mind. So that’s why I wasn’t comfortable raising my hand to categorize him.
DEADLINE: Some of your movies haven’t been that subtle as you were showing Snowden’s evolution from this wannabe elite soldier from a military family to patriotic and then disillusioned national security employee to a fugitive who exposes government secrets. How much of that was informed by you actually getting to spend time with Snowden?
STONE: A lot. I didn’t know anything about epilepsy. He told me about that. I met Lindsay, and she became very important in the movie. I put her in at every key moment, all the stations of change. You see her at the beginning — frivolous and anti-Iraq War. There were steps. Geneva was a big deal for Snowden.
DEADLINE: That’s where he was conscripted by an agent played by Tim Olyphant into framing a Swiss banker for drunk driving, which had more to do with the agent wanting a promotion than national security…
STONE: I tried to show why he resigned from the CIA. It’s a big deal for him, after he asked for that kind of duty and found it like going to war for the first time and getting wounded. Japan is also important, where he learned about cyberwarfare, this new art form.
DEADLINE: A philosophical question: We’ve recently seen devastating terrorist attacks by radical Muslims in Paris, Belgium and other places. It seems like the only way to stop another 9/11, or more of those attacks abroad, is by discovering these things in the planning stages. Which means more of this covert surveillance on the bad guys. How do you rectify that with the cautionary tale that you presented here?
STONE: Well, let’s go back just a step. I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. First of all, the previous question, I was talking about the epilepsy, his relationship with her and above all the things he was seeing in Japan. That was the turning point. Even after Japan, that’s when he goes back to Maryland as a salesman for Dell. I mean, he’s got it made. He described himself as Richie Rich. He had the most amount of money and he’s in the heart of his homeland. He’s set for a good life. Just like you. So then he has his first epileptic attack; his mother was an epileptic, so obviously it was genetic. The stress, we don’t know for sure [how it contributed], but he was clearly not a happy man. Something was wrong in his homeland. So there is an internal motive. Meanwhile, he reads about people like him. He finds about [whistleblower insiders] Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, Diane Roark. All that horrible stuff that happened right after 2001, which he was unaware of, he catches up on. So he understands that if you go through channels, especially from the Thomas Drake affair, it’s not going to work. Thomas Drake’s true story is pretty radical. You have to understand he really did everything by the book and then eventually he went to the press when he couldn’t get it done by the book. That case is a scandal, the Thomas Drake case. There was another whistleblower that came out, John Crane, who worked at the Department of Defense and the Justice Department, who actually said the people Drake complained to were the ones who turned him in. You don’t do that.
DEADLINE: Were these people composites for the Nicolas Cage character, this brilliant guy who created technologically advanced programs, saw them abused and then was put out to pasture when he complained?
STONE: Bill Binney here, he was. He came up with a program that became Michael Hayden’s mass surveillance program.
BILL BINNEY: Yeah. He got to go to the White House every month with that program. He got to go talk to the president every month at the White House with that program. The whole idea is how you organize it and figure out what you really want out of it, if you want to do that. They decided to take it all in because that gave them power over everybody. They get rid of people politically as well as anyone they don’t particularly like Eliot Spitzer.
STONE: Your program cost, what — $19 million?
BINNEY: Three million, two hundred thousand. That’s all.
STONE: And it worked. It was tested and it worked. Meanwhile, somewhere along the way in that system there was another proposal floated by what company?
STONE: Very important company that tracks all the way through this. They come in with a program and it was going to cost how much and what was it called?
BINNEY: $4 billion. It was called Trailblazer. They did that in conjunction with Hayden.
DEADLINE: So you’re saying that even though Bill gave them the technology for $3 million and change, they spent $4 billion for this other technology?
STONE: This whole documentary goes into it. You guys hear about it. You see it. You protest. Basically nothing happens and your program … and as you complain more and more of it … Trailblazer was unsound?
BINNEY: They wanted to mix Thin Thread, the program I devised, right in with Trailblazer. That’s like taking something that works at the speed of light and combining it with another thing that moves really slowly. It’s like going from analog to digital.
STONE: The character played by Nic Cage, we summed it up quicker than this. Cage had devised a filter to take all of this information to filter only targeted select individuals. That filter aspect … Hayden somewhere in his imagination … he thought, “Why filter? We might learn something from the associations through metadata. Why lose the filter?” Give me Michael Hayden’s thinking here.
BINNEY: He basically told Diane that we would do it that way because we had the power to do it. We had the power to collect data.
STONE: He didn’t, legally. That’s another thing he did.
BINNEY: [David] Addington told him…
STONE: Addington is a lawyer for Dick Cheney…
BINNEY: Addington told him that the President’s order authorized to collect all the content and metadata domestically. That was late-2001.
STONE: That was really illegal. Hayden had done a lot of bad things in life, but that was one of the worst things he ever did and he knew it. But he doesn’t admit to it. He’s a very good speaker. He’s on TV. He’s like the favorite uncle, but he’s not.
BINNEY: But he has to keep that charade up.
STONE: Well, it got legalized in the end. In 2008, the FISA Amendments Act. He didn’t want to go to FISA Court, he just wanted to do it. You know what the FISA Court is?
DEADLINE: Honestly? No.
STONE: No, you’ve got to go to one of these judges to do this stuff, it’s a special court. There’s 12 or 13 of them, and he didn’t even want to deal with that. He basically said to Addington, we’ll go with you. If he showed any responsibility he would have said, “I want to run this by NSA counsel and I want to run it by DOA,” and he didn’t, because Addington was basically using White House counsel to do this.
DEADLINE: This is real inside baseball for a movie interview…
STONE: Anyway, I think Hayden felt, because of 9/11 that he’d f*cked up. He did f*ck up. He was the head of NSA on 9/11. He had the information. This goes to your question about why do we have to sacrifice our civil rights for security? He had the right and necessary information. There was a safe house in Sana, Yemen, that was a key safe house for bin Laden. Calls were put into there from Pakistan, even from Afghanistan. That was the house where they were running the show. The NSA knew this house. It was a phone number that was right at the top of their list. So, two of the bombers end up there, making calls and they can trace the call. They go to Malaysia to meet with Sheikh Mohammed. They end up in San Diego at training school. If the NSA had done its job and turned it over to the FBI, those two guys would have been outed, and the plot would have been undone.
Separate and apart from that, there was information coming in from other people and places. If information was coming in on 9/11 and if he’d been a better director and less bureaucratic Hayden would have figured it out or maybe the FBI would have figured it out. The FBI had separate information; you can find all that in the report from the 9/11 commission. What happens is Hayden had the f*cking necessary information, and he didn’t use it. This is key information. The argument was, I need more information.
DEADLINE: Haven’t they acknowledged they screwed up and there wasn’t communication?
STONE: No. He doesn’t acknowledge that in his book. He uses euphemisms to say we missed that one or that’s the ballgame. Then he apologizes for his f*ckup on weapons of mass destruction. That’s the second major tragedy — that he cooperates with Bush and doesn’t have the evidence on WMD and he gives it to him and says we will confirm it. He confirms WMD, which sets off this whole f*cking mess. That’s the second one. The third tragedy, in my opinion, is his cooperation with this new program for illegal mass eavesdropping. He does it. He doesn’t need a filter. He’s been hurt by 9/11. He sees an opportunity. We get more information and this will never happen again. It doesn’t work that way. The more information you get, as Nic Cage says, the more you look, the less you see. You can’t keep up. The volume that comes in every day…
DEADLINE: You’re saying that more surveillance won’t prevent the next attack…
STONE: It’s the opposite. The bomber on 42nd Street was found by taxi drivers. The shoe bomber was picked up by the passengers. The Boston bombers, they had tons of information on them. They missed it. There’s no evidence that this stuff works. Now, they will say that they have it but they have to classify it. So you trade all your civil rights because the government says, we have to protect you and we know better than you, and therefore you give up everything you have, your right to speech, your right to privacy because they say we’ll protect you? I don’t buy that. I wouldn’t make that deal. I think you’d be pretty stupid to make that deal because the governments lie all the time. We know that from the Vietnam War, we know it from the Iraq War. We know it from about 100 other places too. You story. Anyway, that’s what I feel. You don’t make that deal, but they don’t even give us the right to have that argument because it’s national security. We can protect you. You pointed out the Nazis use the same thinking in 1933 when there was a special order. What was it called?
BINNEY: Order 48.
STONE: Special Order 48. In 1933, the Nazis had just come into power. They told the people, “We’re doing this to protect you. The sovereignty of the state belongs to the people, but we’re going to take over your sovereignty and make it our responsibility to protect you.” They always do that in history, and it’s happening again. The McCarthy era, again. The American people are, to some degree, consumers. And they’re happy. What do I have in my life? I’m a good guy. I’m not doing anything wrong. I don’t have to have privacy. I disagree with that. Everyone has to have their privacy in the end. We always regret it. If you give up your privacy, you’re a very immature young person. As you get older in life, you realize there are things that are private and it’s your soul, basically. I feel strongly about that.
DEADLINE: Contrast Snowden with whistleblowers like Julian Assange or Daniel Ellsberg. The latter was the one who stayed behind to face the music after leaking the Pentagon Papers. He said he would be willing to go to jail if telling that truth hastened the end of the Vietnam War.
STONE: Ellsberg had a lot of guts. I know him. He saw the movie. He’s definitely a major figure for Ed. But there was a lot of sentiment for him. He did go to jail, but not for long.
BINNEY: It was a short time, but they raided his psychologist’s office to get his medical records. That destroyed the whole case.
STONE: He was lucky in a sense the Nixon administration went up in fire because if it had been as locked in as this administration is, which is conservative, pro-war party, where there is no anti-war movement. … He was facing a much stronger government. What would they do to Snowden? There’s two arguments. One is that they would treat him like Manning…
DEADLINE: The soldier Chelsea Manning, who provided Julian Assange and Wikileaks with all those classified documents…
STONE: So the moment he got back here they’d throw him in jail, they’d gag him and he wouldn’t be able to say a word. Manning got a 35-year sentence for being the source. It’s outrageous.
DEADLINE: Edward Snowden was critical of the WikiLeaks dump of those 20,000 Democratic National Committee e-mails. How do you contrast those two guys?
STONE: I know them well and it’s a tough call because Julian has his points and he’s very articulate in making them. I understand Ed’s case too. Ed gave all his information to the journalists. There’s a huge amount of information there. They’ve probably released 5 percent. Ed wanted the responsibility to be on the press. He said, “I’m going to give it to you; you make up your mind as to what is printable and what isn’t.”
Assange says he was doing the same thing. He says, “I did not act irresponsibly. The passcode that was dumped was given accidentally by The Guardian.” That’s a famous story and you have to go into all the detail. The guy who wrote the book The Snowden Files, Luke Harding, he wrote the Assange book, Fifth Estate. Assange says those guys screwed up, that they put the password out there in the public and that was what opened up the whole thing. He’s written very articulately about it. Meanwhile, he’s up on a rape charge. The U.S. has really clouded his future. Julian is a very dedicated warrior and as you can see, even though he’s holed up, he’s still done damage to the Western countries but also he’s done damage to any country. It wasn’t just the U.S. It was also African countries. He went after Scientology.
DEADLINE: He cataloged the hacked Sony emails, and had this big mass dump of the 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee. Isn’t that going against the grain in what we discussed about the right to privacy?
STONE: On the other hand, they did act illegally. Although it’s a political party and I don’t know the law. They turned on Bernie Sanders and he was a Democrat. Those emails showed clearly that they were rooting against him and trying everything possible to deny him the nomination, which a lot of people had been saying before that, because of the way our primary process works. The laws are so confusing to me, this concept of super delegates. That was new to me. I never knew there were so many super delegates. Early on they said there’s no way that Sanders can win, although he was winning every state. Because of the super delegates. Right away they were playing these dirty tricks.
I’m sure when The New York Times published some of that stuff early on that New York election, I think that helped Clinton a lot in New York State. Anyway, it wasn’t a fair game, at all. It does help our system because it shows the people it isn’t a democracy. It is corrupt. What are you going to do about it? Most people do nothing and that’ll be the problem. We’ll sleepwalk our way into an anti-democratic tyranny. That’s my fear. That’s also Snowden’s fear. So there are methods. Both of them disagree on the methods.
DEADLINE: Snowden gave up the life he knew. He fled the country. He lives in Russia. Do you think what he did on moral grounds was worth the sacrifice?
STONE: You saw the film? He said, “Yes. I sleep well at night.” I think the man has done the best he could and he continues to fight. He made his contribution, but he’s hanging in there trying to win the long-term battle. There’s no doubt in his mind.
DEADLINE: So there was no way he could have done this and stood his ground like Ellsberg?
STONE: Imagine Manning’s life. Has Manning been able to speak? No one’s interviewed him. I think at that time [Snowden] would have been buried in that system. Talk about your horror show. Bill here got arrested.
BINNEY: Not arrested, but raided. To shut us up because we were talking to members of Congress. They didn’t want us to be in there.
DEADLINE: So you weren’t talking to the media.
BINNEY: They said we might, but they knew it was a lie. They used it as a way to get a warrant to raid us.
DEADLINE: I guess I should bring us back on track here. A sense of paranoia drives this movie as Snowden and these journalists sneak out the information, and he’s interviewed and then flees. It is a propulsive method we saw in ’70s films. Did you feel any of this kind of paranoia making a movie that involved meeting with a fugitive and telling his story?
STONE: We were very cautious. We got a hacker to help us, and his group gave us as much protection as we could on our computers. We put nothing online. The script stayed offline and it was hand delivered, in sections sometimes. Always put into an encrypted email if it had to go abroad to show to an actor. The actor would see it at a certain time. There’s all forms of encryption. We had our offices debugged. Moritz felt strongly we should go to Germany.
DEADLINE: Did you ever have evidence that in fact you had been surveilled?
STONE: No, but we had our offices debugged and we also went there to make a film all the way through that infrastructure we needed. He felt much safer in Germany. At that time, in 2014, the Snowden thing was still hot, in terms of him being regarded as a menace. In Germany, the poll ratings on Snowden’s actions were favorable, 60/30 or something like that. In America, the poll ratings were the opposite. It felt like a warmer climate. There are no corporate sponsorships for a film like this. They don’t believe in them. They won’t get behind you. To show you show you the power of this thing, our German partner had always had cooperation with BMW and we couldn’t get any, because their American subsidiary at BMW told them they didn’t want any involvement in it. The corporate strangulation goes deep around the world. It’s trans-national. In Germany, it was a good climate to work. The crew was great; they spoke English, most of them. I have said publicly I don’t think that the NSA would try to prevent this film from happening, but I do think the American corporations by their fear of what they could do. … It’s a chilling effect.
That’s what surveillance does. That’s what it does to me too. I feel terrible. I used to go about the Internet much more freely. I’m not comfortable knowing there’s this gigantic enemy that has so much technical prowess, even beyond what I know. I assume that they know more. The latest programs, they have so many programs at the NSA now. I read about the whole new bunch I didn’t know about. They have new programs at the NSA that are pretty significant. Their cyber warfare abilities are striking. The fact is, they can go into any country and put malware into anything.
They always talk about the attacks on the DNC, but they don’t talk about the American attacks abroad. We started the war on cyber with the Iran attacks. Hayden f*cked that up, too. Stuxnet was the most dangerous virus known in existence at that moment. They put it out in 2007. It was unsuccessful because it kept growing and they couldn’t control it. It jumped around and to other countries and it was a disaster. We still don’t know the implications of it.
BINNEY: Plus, anybody getting that software can re-tool it.
DEADLINE: Repurpose it as a weapon?
STONE: In the movie, there was a moment where Snowden comes in and Scott Eastwood is involved. Everyone’s screaming at each other. That was the Syria blackout. I think it might have been the result of Stuxnet that caused a blackout in Syria in 2012. We were using cyberwarfare on Syria. We wanted to regime-change Syria and that led to quite a lot of confusion, a f*ckup. That wasn’t under Hayden’s watch, but Stuxnet was, I believe. I’m scared of the NSA. You should be. Everyone should be.
I always believe in good detective work, and good informants. In the history of the world, police work, that has worked. Why all of a sudden, because of 2001, do you have to change police work into this militarization? It’s like militarizing the police in the country. They have weapons they don’t know how to use. They’re too big. They don’t need landmine detectors in the middle of Ferguson. So in other words, they’re taking the power away from the police to do their work. Undercover informants have always worked best. That’s where the bin Laden thing happened. A walk in, from ISI, the Pakistani Intelligence.
DEADLINE: I was thinking back on all the great movies that you’ve written and/or directed — Midnight Express, Platoon, Salvador, Wall Street, JFK. You are still making provocative movies with a point. Who out there has most impressed you as a filmmaker not afraid to do the same? What was the last truly great movie that you admired?
STONE: I think Paul Greengrass does a good job. Sometimes he gets over-American with the Captain Phillips movie, but he plays that line well. I know he’s got a conscience of some kind in there. Bloody Sunday was something. Green Zone was worth paying attention to because he caught a lot of the ridiculousness of the American position. I liked Syriana. I like political movies. Spike Lee has always shown me he’s got integrity in his films. I like movies. I like action movies sometimes, even if they’re silly. I enjoyed the Bourne movie. I just have a moviegoer nature, so I’m always willing to give the benefit of the doubt. I even thought the bin Laden movie was fun to watch. But when you know the facts, it’s very depressing that the CIA was able to control this movie the way they did. And torture doesn’t work, and I understood the anger about it. I enjoyed the movie. In other words, I can go to the movie. I didn’t enjoy the message of American Sniper, but I enjoyed the movie. It’s well-made. Clint Eastwood did a good job, but it’s a reprehensible message.
STONE: Well, the attitude of the sniper. The fact that we had the right to be there, to destroy this country. Who did he kill? I’m sure he killed quite a few innocent people, too. According to people like Jesse Ventura, who sued, the book had a lot of lies in it. Knowing the SEAL structure … the SEALs are applauded and lauded for everything they’ve done, but I think sometimes, as with the Marcus Luttrell, there’s a little bit of overkill here. I think we’re drifting into myth-making and exaggeration. Which they accuse me of, I know. But I think our country has gone a little — no, a lot crazy on this super-patriotic military stuff. If you look at other countries in the world, nobody I know has boasted so much about the military since World War II as we do. We parade, we put our flags in our civilian President’s lapels. We have flyovers at football games and baseball games. This constant applauding of the military is a sickness. It is what happened to Germany in the ’30s. It could lead to a bad place. This super-patriotization is going to backfire on us big time. I feel that. That’s why I’m fighting for tamping it down because I feel strongly, and so does Bill. We’re a great country, and we can pull out of this. We don’t have to go this way that Bush decided to take us back in 2001.
DEADLINE: You were a soldier…
STONE: I was in the military. I saw the over-bureaucratization. I saw the f*ckups. Whenever there would be fire, we would return enormous amount of fire. We wouldn’t know where to return it. We’d be on radios screaming, voices, a panic kind of thing. It’s not really thought through. Find out where your enemy is before you fire broadly. Otherwise, that’s how you kill a lot of civilians. Whatever they say, Obama has killed a lot of civilians and a lot of innocent people. And they consider him reasonable. He’s launched more drones than Mr. Bush. He’s become the chief murderer.
DEADLINE: Haven’t those drones killed a lot of terrorists?
STONE: That’s what they tell the American people. It has not solved our problem. Other leaders replace them and the people who live in those countries resent it.
BINNEY: The principle they used on the drones was the double tap. They find a target. They shoot the target. Then they wait for somebody to come in and help them and they shoot them too.
STONE: Then they shoot the funeral party three days later. You haven’t heard these stories? You can’t go to the national media on that. You’ve got to go to these humanitarian organizations. This recent killing, the Saudis and the Doctors Without Borders, is the second one. We bombed one. There was another one in Yemen. The Saudis are really killing a lot of civilians, and we’re supporting them. They’re flying with our support.
DEADLINE: I recall you had a very good script on that first hunt for bin Laden in Tora Bora and then you had your My Lai massacre film, and one on MLK. Is there one that you could not get made that most haunts you?
STONE: I would say the latter two. The MLK movie goes from ‘65 to ‘68 when he was killed. If you remember, Selma ends in ’63. So it’s a sanitized King. In ’65 to ’68 he becomes much more controversial. He faces off on the Vietnam War heavily. He faces off on poverty and racism. Instead of only civil rights, he broadens his attention. He makes a huge amount of enemies and he loses a lot of his civil rights people too. It’s an interesting time in his life, when he was tested. In the testing, I think a stronger King emerged, a more pointed King, even more than we make him a hero for. I think he found a closer relationship to God, and I think that’s very important. My Lai, it’s an expensive movie to make with the period helicopters. It’s a complicated movie, but it’s a great story. It’s the story of the investigation made by the military itself. They had a guy, a three-star general, conservative. William Ray Peers went in thinking it was bullsh*t, exaggerated and made up. He came out believing that there was a massacre. It was his report, a solid report with 520-something dead, that really was a disaster for the military. He was supposed to be promoted to four star, but after that, he never was. Like Bill here, they derailed him out to Korea, and he never worked again.
DEADLINE: Selma got made without the collaboration of the MLK estate. What’s stopping you?
STONE: I got caught on that. I was working for the producers who were working with the family, so they were extremely hesitant to get into the issues of adultery and language and where I went with it. It’s too bad the family. … I’ve been on both sides of that issue. I understand their feeling. On the other hand, I think you’ve got to make the right King movie and I don’t think they want to face that truth. They’re very conservative. Some of them.
DEADLINE: But would you need them?
STONE: That’s a good question, whether you could forge ahead without them. I would try. But that script was written in the framework of the family. If I was still to do it, I would do it without them. But you wouldn’t get their support when the film came out. There would be a lot of Southern preachers who would be offended. It’s controversial.
DEADLINE: You turned 70 in Toronto.
STONE: I have felt 70 for a while. We went to Corsica for a two-week holiday with my family. We had a wonderful birthday there.
DEADLINE: What keeps the fire burning, and how does experience make up for the inevitable mellowing that age is at least supposed to bring?
STONE: Funny. I get angrier sometimes.
BINNEY: I’m 72 and I feel the same thing. I think you really become intolerant of idiots.
STONE: Remember, he’s a mathematical genius. But don’t use the word idiot because you’re too smart. People don’t know. Say it another way.
BINNEY: When I left NSA, it was with an understanding that you can never underestimate the power of large numbers of stupid people.
STONE: Or the power of group-think. It’s safer to be in a group, safer to be conformist. It’s much safer.
BINNEY: The problem with a group is, the more people you add, the lower the average IQ.
STONE: That’s how you get a political party. Instead, we choose to be investigative reporters. You have to make that choice. If our country becomes the equivalent of a tyrant in the world, dominating other countries, telling them what to do, a regime change here or there, willing to use any dirty trick to destroy the economy, control the flow of information. That’s not a world I want to be in because I don’t buy it. It would be nice to make money and to live well, but the capitalism itself is destroying the planet. These things are tearing me apart, still.
DEADLINE: So I have to ask the question that betrays a lack of my own brain cells. You’ve made movies about presidents. Of the two candidates battling it out, who has better potential for an Oliver Stone movie, and why?
STONE: That’s a double question. As a citizen, I have no interest in either one. As a dramatist, I would say Trump is a much more interesting figure. Clinton is the more dangerous one, and when I’m saying she is the more dangerous it’s because she will win and she is going to be even more hawk-like than Obama. All her choices and the people around her. She has given no indication that she’s learned anything as Secretary of State. I am very worried about her. She’s more dangerous than Condi Rice or Madeleine Albright even was as Secretary of State.
DEADLINE: Fistfights at his rallies, the wall around Mexico. You aren’t concerned about Trump?
STONE: Trump can’t win. The media is so against him. I don’t even see that as a possibility. I am concerned about … there’s no anti-war party. There’s no anti-war voice. Democrats and Republicans are pro-war. They want to take on Russia now. There are some things Clinton will do that are going to work domestically and can’t hurt her. If we have wars abroad, or if we have 130 countries we’re in, if we have 800-plus bases and you keep sticking our finger quietly into all these pots, that comes back to haunt us. All these immigrants that are fleeing to Europe are the product of our involvement in the Middle East. We started these wars. We ruined Libya. We participated in wiping out tyrants and we’re doing the same in Iraq and we’re trying to do the same in Syria. It backfires, and what happens is the war, the soldiers we send abroad, come back wounded, calloused, hurting — no explanation, no understanding of why they were in Iraq or Syria or Libya. They come back to this country and it comes back into our karma. It comes back into the way our police are over-militarized. Our police in the smaller cities are much too tough. It comes back into our criminal justice system when we have 2 1/2 million prisoners. It comes back in the shootings that happen every day. What is the latest statistic, 52,000 a year? How many of them are related to this? Some of them are suicides, including the veterans. All of the violence comes home to roost.
DEADLINE: That said, I saw Platoon. It hit me hard. You were there and saw a lot of guys return with exactly the same kind of PTSD. Why is what’s happening now different?
STONE: It isn’t. It’s the same phenomenon, PTSD or whatever you want to call it. Veterans are in despair because they’re fighting wars that don’t make sense. If you fight for a reason and you come back, you feel more at peace with yourself. A lot of the veterans are not at peace with themselves because they killed villagers, they killed civilians, they participated in a war that doesn’t make sense for America. When you fight those wars abroad you bring them home. That’s what Martin Luther King said very clearly. The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is America. We are the terrorists, many times. In Syria we are supporting the terrorist group, the Al-Nusra front. We don’t report to the people, what we’re really doing. We report our point of view, our propaganda. Recently in the Ukraine, massive story. Putin broke it and of course they denied it completely. He showed pictures. There was a tremendous terrorist plot in Crimea, to blow up something an electrical station or something. These were the pro-Ukrainian government people in Crimea, ready to exploit a major terrorist incident. The Russians found it, stopped it and arrested everybody. Showed pictures. It didn’t make it to the U.S. The New York Times denied it, said this was another fabrication from Putin. Why would you say that? Why wouldn’t you at least report it? They ridicule everything he says. They don’t even publish his speeches, and his speeches are good. That’s how you have a Cold War because you make up stories.
You have to look for another way to get your news. Look at RT, which they will say is all propaganda. Look at the internet.
DEADLINE: I think we are good here.
STONE: You are writing this for Hollywood. Don’t make me a nut. You and I have known each other too long.
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