Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt attends the premiere of the film "Snowden" in New York City on Sep. 13, 2016. He plays NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Reuters

"Snowden," Oliver Stone's new film about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hits theaters Friday and, for many Americans, it will be the first time they hear Snowden's story.

On the surface, Snowden's story seems to have all the makings of an exciting movie. It is part spy thriller, part conspiracy story and the bad guy is none other than the United States government. But that does not mean Stone did not exaggerate a few elements of Snowden's life to give the movie a little extra drama.

Snowden is a former Central Intelligence Agency employee-turned National Security Agency contractor who copied and leaked a mass of classified information from the NSA in 2013. The information Snowden helped make public exposed the NSA's PRISM surveillance program and revealed the agency's secret mass collection of data from major internet and cell phone companies to monitor millions of Americans.

Snowden's decision to leak NSA information made him the "most wanted man in the world" by the U.S. government. He currently resides in Russia to avoid extradition and charges for treason. Critics consider him a traitor that jeopardized national security, while his supporters argue that he is a whistleblower who made the public aware of important actions by the government. They say President Barack Obama should pardon him.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden is the subject of Oliver Stone's new movie, "Snowden," which premieres in theaters on Sep. 16, 2016. Reuters

Here are a few ways the "Snowden" movie exaggerates Snowden's story:

Snowden's Military Training

In May 2004, Snowden enlisted in the Army Reserve as a Special Forces candidate. But in September, just four months later, Snowden was discharged after breaking his legs in an accident. He had not completed any training and there is very little record of his military service.

However, as the movie's trailer makes clear, Stone goes to great lengths to dramatize Snowden's special forces training. There are many shots of Gordon-Levitt's Snowden in full gear going through intense training exercises. This makes sense considering the hero narrative about Snowden the movie depicts, but it's not exactly accurate compared with the real Snowden's brief military stint.

Snowden's NSA Role

To be a NSA security contractor, you have to be smart, but "Snowden" makes its subject out to be an intelligence virtuoso. He rises through the ranks of the intelligence agency at breakneck speed and the movie exaggerates his role, sometimes implying he was one of the most important analysts in the agency. The movie's Snowden talks about being responsible for people's lives and being tasked with single-handedly stopping Chinese hackers from stealing millions of dollars from the U.S. While Snowden may have contributed to such efforts, he was one of many analysts at the NSA and not a power player.

Snowden's Girlfriend

Snowden was dating his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, throughout his career as an NSA contractor, but she was not intimately aware of what he was doing. Though she now lives in Moscow with Snowden, the Oscar-winning documentary "Citizen Four," which details how Snowden divulged leaked NSA documents to The Guardian newspaper, reveals that Mills was not always in the know. He expressed concern for her safety and emphasized that he did not tell her anything about his plans to leak information in order to protect her.

However, that story does not make for a juicy Hollywood romance. In "Snowden," Mills is played by acclaimed actress Shailene Woodley. She plays a major role in the film's story. Mills is aware of Snowden's NSA plot and is in danger right alongside her boyfriend.

The Rubik's Cube

To this day, it is not public knowledge how Snowden snuck the leaked NSA files past security out of the facility where he worked to pass on to journalists at The Guardian. That left Stone with a lot of creative freedom. The trailer for "Snowden" shows Gordon-Levitt's Snowden hiding the confidential files in a Rubik's cube, brazenly tossing the toy to a security guard who then gives it back to Snowden once the analyst has passed through security screening. It it is a clever and exciting scene, but there is no evidence to suggest that is how Snowden pulled off his intelligence heist.


Snowden, not surprisingly, is the hero of "Snowden." The movie is very sympathetic to Snowden's efforts to expose the NSA's surveillance program and depicts other analysts helping or, at the very least, approving of his actions. The implication is that many at the agency were uncomfortable with what they were being asked to do for the government. However, reports on Snowden's colleagues' attitudes are mixed.

The House Intelligence Committee says the former National Security Agency contractor did major damage to the U.S. security interests by leaking confidential information and that his whistleblower reputation is a misnomer. There are also reports that many of Snowden's fellow analysts did not approve of what he did and are dismissive toward him as a disgruntled employee.