Joseph Gordon-Levitt, right, plays the title NSA whistleblower in "Snowden."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, right, plays the title NSA whistleblower in "Snowden." Credit: AP / Jürgen Olczyk

PLOT The story of Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who exposed the U.S. government’s widespread surveillance of its citizens.

CAST Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans

RATED R (language, some nudity)


BOTTOM LINE A sympathetic but subtle portrayal of a young whistleblower who broke the law and paid a price.

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.

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.”

4 more whistleblower movies

In “Snowden,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as former National Security Agency contractor and famed whistleblower Edward Snowden. His story has all the makings of compelling drama, as did these four other whistleblower biopics.

SERPICO (1973) — Al Pacino followed his success in “The Godfather” with this good cop/bad cops tale of Det. Frank Serpico, who was shunned by his fellow officers after exposing corruption within the New York Police Department.

SILKWOOD (1983) — Meryl Streep earned an Oscar nomination as Karen Silkwood, a chemical technician turned labor union activist after uncovering health and safety violations at a plutonium plant. Silkwood was only 28 when she died under mysterious circumstances in a 1974 car crash.

THE INSIDER (1999) — Russell Crowe gave one of his best performances as Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist at a tobacco company whose life came undone after appearing on “60 Minutes” as part of an exposé on the tobacco industry. The film received seven Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actor.

ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000) — As a tough-talking legal assistant who digs up the dirt on a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply, Julia Roberts nabbed a best-actress Oscar. Too bad she forgot to thank the real Brockovich during her acceptance speech.

— Daniel Bubbeo

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