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Film review: Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’ is surprisingly straightforward

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sensitive lead performance is a highlight.

Two and a half stars

Snowden Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Rhys Ifans. Directed by Oliver Stone. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.

Edward Snowden took enormous risks to expose U.S. government domestic spying programs, but filmmaker Oliver Stone plays it pretty safe with his biopic Snowden. Mostly lacking in Stone’s flashy filmmaking style, Snowden is a straightforward retelling of its title character’s time as an analyst and contractor for the CIA and NSA, during which he became increasingly disillusioned. Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald lay out the facts pretty plainly, interspersing flashbacks with Snowden’s 2013 meeting with journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo).

For anyone interested in the true story, Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour is a better starting point, but Snowden benefits from Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sensitive lead performance. The movie spends far too much time on Snowden’s relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), though, in what amount to clichéd spy-movie scenes about a romance pushed to its breaking point by secrets and lies. More compelling is the dynamic between the initially idealistic Snowden and his more cynical CIA mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), culminating in a blunt but amusingly symbolic scene in which O’Brian literally towers over Snowden during a video chat. More creative visual touches like that, and less of Stone’s smug back-patting (like the real Snowden’s self-congratulatory appearance at the end), could have gotten the movie closer to the boldness of the man it depicts.

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