Oliver Stone brings his whirling liberal style to try and make sense of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed the extend of CIA snooping through leaking information to the Guardian.

Joseph Gordon Levitt is reliably likeable as Snowden, whose life as a snooping tech spook we follow from his rejection by the Marines, to his induction with the CIA in Virginia, to his deployment on shady assignments in Geneva, Japan and Hawaii, to his eventual exile in Moscow.

Shaileen Woodley is Lindsay Mills, his pole-dancing, photographer girlfriend whose own liberal views eventually effect change in the patriotic young man.

This guff-laden biopic part is contrasted with the cloak ’n’ dagger of Snowden in his ugly, cinematically inert Hong Kong hotel room, taking Guardian journos Ewan Mcaskill (Tom Wilkinson) and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) through his data revelations while Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) films it all – the footage of which became her award-winning (but quite boring) doc CitizenFour.

Injecting bombast through casting are Rhys Ifans and Nic Cage as heavily unlikely CIA staffers and mentors, which makes it all a bit silly and all-star.

Stone purports to look at the hero – is Snowden a traitor or a righteous crusader? – but can’t escape the fact that all this geeky drama requires a lot of typing and numbers scrawling across a screen. No one film maker has yet found a dramatic correlative for computers – all the Wikileaks stuff, Steve Jobs and yes Social Network has all been spectacularly uninteresting – and Snowden suffers similar fate.

The very structure of such beasts is to be about code, to hide, to throw up decoys and screens full of numbers and symbols, to dissemble and dodge, and none of this allows the viewer in, deliberately and literally putting a barrier up between us and the characters, keeping us out with an emotional firewall.

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