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'Snowden:' Oliver Stone, minus the histrionics, in his best political pic

Hollywood directors churn out films about politicians by the barrel, but Oliver Stone remains one of a precious few who actually makes political films.

In Oliver Stone's "Snowden": (from left) Melissa Leo , Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto.
In Oliver Stone's "Snowden": (from left) Melissa Leo , Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto.Read moreJÜRGEN OLCZYK / Open Road Films

Hollywood directors churn out films about politicians by the barrel, but Oliver Stone remains one of a precious few who actually makes political films.

From Salvador and Wall Street to Platoon and JFK, his movies are deeply political affairs that set forth a charged ideological agenda in hope of influencing the public debate.

Stone, who is decidedly a man of the left, isn't one to join the conversation gingerly, talking points in hand. He prefers to throw ideological grenades, destabilizing the viewer with intense, passionately biased work.

The effort doesn't always pay off: Stone's films have been lambasted as extreme, hysterical, over-the-top - which was certainly true of the painfully aggressive JFK.

But it does pay off in Snowden, Stone's far more sedate, centered, and serious biopic about government whistle-blower Edward Snowden, featuring an almost sublime turn by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the title role.

Stone's best political work to date, Snowden tries to show why its controversial subject, a self-taught computer prodigy who was once a committed conservative, would chuck a thriving career in the intelligence community to leak classified documents to the press.

A shrewdly constructed narrative, Snowden revolves around a series of interviews in June 2013 that the former CIA officer and NSA contractor gave journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) in a Hong Kong hotel.

Quinto and Wilkinson are appropriately nebbishy and anxiety-ridden as the reporters, while Melissa Leo is maternal as documentarian Laura Poitras, who filmed the conversations for her 2014 feature, Citizenfour.

Various flashbacks radiate from that hotel room as Snowden, who was then only 29, recounts his life story. He tells of the injury that ended his Special Forces training when he was 20, of attending the CIA's training course, of the little bit of James Bond work he did in Geneva.

He speaks of his father-son relationship with CIA trainer Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans), of his turbulent love life with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and of how he built surveillance programs from his cubicle in a massive underground NSA bunker in Hawaii.

Stone, who met with Snowden several times while writing the script, has his character carefully explain the dizzying scope of the NSA's electronic dragnet, which can trawl the communications of virtually anyone on the globe, including world leaders and powerful CEOs.

He explains how American operatives have installed back doors in the computer systems that control the infrastructure in several friendly and unfriendly countries so that American officials can shut down a nation's entire power grid with a keystroke.

Snowden declares that the war on terror gave us the opportunity to expand our global electronic hegemony, but that our real goal is economic and political mastery over all other nations.

It's chilling stuff - for folks who care enough to get angry or who trust a liberal like Stone to get it right.

Chilling - and very chatty. Snowden is a seriously talky film.

Yet it never feels tedious, thanks to Stone's tremendous sense of story construction, the film's razor-sharp editing - and Gordon-Levitt's masterful performance. His Snowden is endlessly fascinating, coming across simultaneously as a charismatic seducer and a self-effacing kid.

Snowden is not entirely free of Stone-ian excess - it's marred by an annoying strain of hero worship that's sometimes hard to take. Stone portrays his subject as a latter-day Joan of Arc, and he excludes a view shared by many Americans that even if Snowden did the country a service, he's still a criminal and a traitor.

One is tempted to think of Snowden as a self-defeating exercise: Three years have passed since Snowden's revelations, yet neither Congress nor the White House has made fundamental change to how our intelligence agencies practice their tradecraft.




sss(Out of four stars)

yDirected by Oliver Stone. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage. Distributed

by Open Road Films.

yRunning time: 2 hours,

14 mins.

yParent's guide: R (Profanity, sexuality, some nudity).

yPlaying at: Area theaters.