Movie review of “Snowden”: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Edward Snowden (Hero? Thief? Traitor?), overshadows everyone else in Oliver Stone’s movie. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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Hero? Thief? Traitor?

Traitor? Thief? Hero?

That Edward Snowden stole thousands of secret U.S. government documents is beyond dispute. History will litigate whether he was a hero or a traitor for having done so and then disclosing those secrets to the world.

Movie Review ★★★  

‘Snowden,’ with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson. Directed by Oliver Stone, from a screenplay by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald. 138 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity. Several theaters.

What Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” does is present a portrait of a complex man. At the start, he’s a proud, committed patriot who sought to join Army Special Forces to fight in Iraq after 9/11. But he gradually grows disillusioned when, as an employee first at the CIA and later working for the National Security Agency, he becomes intimately involved with the inner workings of massive covert surveillance programs used to spy on allied nations abroad and U.S. citizens at home.

That character arc ties this movie tightly to two of Stone’s best: “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” — a young man’s loss of innocence in the midst of a moral quagmire being at the heart of each. That makes Stone exactly the right director to bring Snowden’s story to the big screen.

The production values are first-rate — Stone’s movies are always very good-looking — and the finely shaded performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role is a revelation.

His physical resemblance to Snowden is remarkable, a fact brought home by Stone’s inclusion at the end of the movie’s real-life subject in a few brief scenes that leads to a “Wait! What? Is that really him? Yes!” moment of realization for the audience.

It’s a very unshowy performance. Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden is soft-spoken and thoughtful. You can see his mind working as he considers his growing moral quandary. He’s confident in his superior abilities as a programmer, which carry him high in the hierarchy of the CIA and the NSA. But the higher he goes, the more disenchanted he becomes as he realizes how vast is the electronic spy apparatus operated by the U.S. intelligence services and how intrusive and unaccountable to the citizenry it is. Finally, fed up, he downloads vast amounts of documents, decamps to Hong Kong where he turns the material over to journalists who disseminate the material and thereby shock the world.

Gordon-Levitt carries the movie, and without flash or overt dramatics, overshadows everyone else in it, including Shailene Woodley. She plays his liberal-minded girlfriend who leads him to question his right-leaning mindset.

Stone only glancingly alludes to Snowden’s decision to seek sanctuary in Russia and nowhere addresses assertions by U.S. officials that his massive document dump compromised ongoing intelligence operations. His inclusion of a scene in which supporters give him a standing ovation at a video conference is a sign of how heavily Stone’s thumb is on the scale in Snowden’s favor.

Still, addressing the issue of today’s surveillance society and Snowden’s critical role in dragging it into the spotlight makes the hero or traitor question not easily answerable. Perhaps those two characterizations are not mutually exclusive.