How do we feel about Edward Snowden? Generally speaking, we’re not sure. On the one hand, the NSA contractor who leaked classified documents in 2013 exposed a massive U.S. surveillance operation that violated the privacy of ordinary citizens. On the other, he broke sacrosanct laws and left his country — for Moscow! — to do so. Does Snowden deserve a pardon, as he recently suggested, or a prison sentence?

“Snowden” is Oliver Stone’s attempt to crystallize our position. The film is part biopic, covering Snowden’s early life as a washed-out Army Reserve trainee and budding computer genius, and part cyberthriller, with remote-activated laptop cameras and memory cards hidden in Rubik’s Cubes. Mostly, though, Stone (who co-wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald) portrays Snowden as a classic figure: the brainwashed believer whose eyes are opened to the truth. Stone’s movie may not change any minds — does that even happen anymore? — but it shows that whatever Snowden’s methods, his motivations were sincere.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who met with Snowden to portray him, turns in an uncannily accurate performance: wan, sparsely bearded, highly articulate yet slightly mumbly. We feel Snowden’s internal conflict as his star rises in the intelligence community (Nicolas Cage makes an odd appearance as an eccentric cryptographer) even while his concern grows over his role in widespread surveillance (and, in a spy plot that feels lifted from John le Carré, the wrecking of innocent lives). Shailene Woodley is reasonably convincing as Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s girlfriend, who struggles to make sense of his darkening personality.

The movie’s most gripping scenes unfold in the Hong Kong hotel room from which Snowden published his findings with the help of two journalists from the British Guardian, Glenn Greenwald (a hotheaded Zachary Quinto) and Ewan McAskill (Tom Wilkinson, warm and crusty as good bread), all captured on video by the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (a cagey Melissa Leo). As Snowden explains his actions and his thinking, it becomes clear that he has no illusions about his fate.

If Snowden is Winston Smith in this version of “1984,” then the CIA bigwig Corbin O’Brian must be, well, that novel’s O’Brien. This fictional character is played by Rhys Ifans with sinister flair, but he also speaks the movie’s truest lines: “Most Americans don’t want freedom. They want security. It’s a simple bargain.”