Do Oliver Stone Films Like 'Snowden' Skew History?

How the biggest film historian working today isn't a historian at all.

Getty Images / Kevin Winter

Oliver Stone is, and always has been, loud. A New York Times profile about the Oscar-winning filmmaker once summed it up thusly: Stone “lacks what you might call the deliberation gene,” which is “whatever prevents us from saying things that will get us in trouble.”

A decorated Vietnam War veteran himself, Stone is responsible for writing or directing such films as Platoon, Wall Street, Scarface, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday, among many others. Each of his films and documentaries raise a stir, none more so than the films he’s made about important historical events. He deconstructed the Kennedy assassination in JFK, zoomed in on a scandalous presidency in Nixon, chronicled the defining tragedy of our times in World Trade Center, lampooned an American President in W., and argued with history books in Untold History.

Now, he’s lionizing a controversial figure in Snowden, his biopic of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Stone’s films have always courted controversy, making him perhaps the most notable filmmaking chronicler of history working today. His version of events, however, are often controversial, leaving the films very open for criticism by historians.

“He does different kinds of films than most people, and he takes risks,” Peter Kuznick, a professor of history at the American University in Washington, told Inverse. “In some ways that makes him much more vulnerable.” Kuznick helped Stone write the Showtime series and book The Untold History of the United States, a 2012 documentary series that reexamined important 20th Century events, starting with World War I and ending with the first Obama administration.

What separates Stone from a historian, Kuznick suggested, is that he looks more at the big picture than minute details.

“He’s trying to get the spirit of history correct as opposed to every last detail,” Kuznick reasoned, “Writing films is very different than writing history. He does care about history, but as a filmmaker he’s got to do a lot of things that don’t have any historical record.”

Director/writer Oliver Stone and writer professor Peter Kuznick.

Getty Images / Frederick M. Brown

Any film about history takes some artistic license and seizes creative freedom to make a narrative come to life, and it’s in the blurring of the lines between truth and fiction where things get tricky. In order to make Edward Snowden a compelling character in a movie, how much did Stone have to change? It’s hard to know, since Snowden was not a public figure before his leak and subsequent escape to Russia, but Stone’s depiction of the NSA — sometimes nefarious, other times clueless — may rankle some.

In the case of such a secretive agency, it would stand to reason that an exaggerated account would be the public’s most lasting impression of the work it does. And if that’s the case, is it possible that the films — if not accurate — are causing some damage?

This question, as it pertains to Stone’s films, first came up in what is perhaps Stone’s most egregiously inaccurate version of history, the 1991 drama JFK. It chronicles the John F. Kennedy assassination and suggests that it was part of an orchestrated coup d’état, and based its story on testimony by former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, whom many historians saw as unreliable.

Kuznick admitted he thought a lot of the ideas in that film were “out-there theories” but thought making the film itself was justified. To make his argument, he told an anecdote about a discussion that Stone and historians George McGovern and Arthur Schlesinger had during the American Historical Association following a screening of the filmmaker’s 1995 film Nixon.

“Schlesinger was critical of the movie, McGovern was praising it, and the audience was overwhelmingly sympathetic to Oliver because they thought Schlesinger was being very literal,” Kuznick explained. “What Oliver is trying to do is to get people interested enough in the topics so that they go out and research them more on their own.” To make his point, he mentioned that a treasure trove of unreleased material from the Warren Commission findings was released after the JFK film controversy. Kuznick sees the same thing happening with the fact-versus-fiction thrust of Snowden.

“How Snowden got the NSA information out there is pretty straightforward and mundane,” Kuznick said. “Oliver had to introduce that information in a way that’s much more dynamic. It’s very accurate, but there are certain dramatic touches that Oliver adds because of his own interpretations.”

In the end, viewers are responsible for seeing the asterisk on Stone’s films. They don’t purport to be the truth, but they do want to present something close to it but in an entertaining package. “People mostly go to the movies to be entertained,” Kuznick added, “and Oliver’s a great storyteller.”

Then again, critics might say that’s what’s troubling: Because they are given a nationwide platform, his fictional feature films could be misconstrued by the general public as a recounting of the way events actually occurred. Stone, then, in is able to inject fringe conspiracy theories into the public mainstream, as one might argue he did with JFK. When you have mainstream level with A-list movie stars like Kevin Costner or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Snowden telling those stories, it makes it even more buyable to the public.

History, as they say, is written by the victors, and it’s an aphorism that seems perfectly ironic to Stone. He is someone who volunteered for service in Vietnam as a staunch Republican and left the quagmire deeply skeptical of American foreign power. It’s this experience that Kuznick suggests provided the basis for the filmmaker’s entire career: “It’s him grappling with his own experience in Vietnam,” he said succinctly.

Perhaps there should be an equal and somewhat opposite figure like Stone to challenge and to poke and prod until something comes loose or he’s held up by others. But Hollywood doesn’t necessarily have an obligation to adhere to facts, accuracy, and the truth, and if Stone’s films can raise some questions about the common historical narrative, that’s not a bad thing at all.

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