Skip to main content

Sometimes the more you look, the less you see.

Snowden
(2016)

(SPOILERS) There are a fair few Oliver Stone movies I haven’t much cared for (Natural Born Killers, U-Turn, Alexander for starters), and only W., post millennium, stands out as even trying something, if in a largely inconspicuous and irrelevant way, but I don’t think I’ve been as bored by one as I have by Snowden. Say what you like about Citizenfour – a largely superficial puff piece heralded as a vanguard of investigative journalism that somehow managed to yield a Best Documentary Feature Oscar for its lack of pains – but it stuck to the point, and didn’t waste the viewer’s time. Stone’s movie is so vapid and cliché-ridden in its portrayal of Edward Snowden, you might almost conclude the director was purposefully fictionalising his subject in order to preserve his status as a conspiracy nut (read: everything about Snowden is a fiction).


With his recent track record, one might almost come to the conclusion JFK was an aberration, that while it set the tone for Stone as an anti-establishment darling, his actual mind-set is much more pedestrian and mainstream. You only have to glance at some of the big subjects he has tackled since, without even a hint of delving into the greater murk that may or may not be behind or surrounding them – Nixon, 9/11, George W’s reign, the financial crisis, and now our Ed – and it’s evident that he’s approached them from the most palatable, digestible, non-boat-rocking angle. When Stone was angry he was an interesting guy, but that began to dissipate somewhere around the time of the trying-too-hard-to-outrage NBK, along with his eye and ear for provocative material. He even made a Secret History of the United States that failed to mention advance knowledge of Pearl Harbour. 


Snowden’s so antiseptic, so diluted, so brimming with movie make-believe, I might offer Stone the charitable get-out that he was shining a light on how questionable certain aspects of Snowden’s story are without ever actually saying as much. If it weren’t for his aforementioned recent track record. Perhaps Oliver has been replaced by a clone, and Dave was an eerie harbinger of his own creative demise? 


Certainly, there’s a school of thought that Snowden is, was and always will be CIA (this theory often also tends to extend to Julian Assange), the most damning mark being that pretty much every conspiracy theory going has gone untouched by his revelations, and more pertinently still, that his much-vaunted info dump has revealed precisely nothing we didn’t already know, apart from a smattering of additional jargon and trumpeted programmes to sell the story. That Snowden apparently thought he could trust instruments of the corporate mass media (The Guardian, The New York Times), goes to cast further doubt on this (just look at how shat up The Guardian was when a wildcard like Jeremy Corbyn became a real prospect, doing everything they possibly could to malign him).


No, I don’t profess to know, but my resounding reaction to the Snowden “revelations” has been “And…?” On that level, Snowden is probably the movie Ed deserves, failing to display any semblance of a dramatic spine or competence. You’d have thought, if Stone really wanted to garland the “truth” the man had unveiled, he’d have honoured that “facts” of the story as much as possible, Instead, the only remarkably accurate thing in the movie is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance, particularly vocally, sporting as he does an entirely unwarranted eeriness. 


There’s nothing in Stone’s approach that could be deemed a success – think Thandie Newton’s misjudged performance in W. extended to an entire picture – from the formlessly traditional score, to Antony Dod Mantle’s brainlessly fizzy cinematography (it’s sparky and forgettably self-conscious, adding to the sense none of this is real, and the visualisation of surveillance belongs in about 1995), to the terribly linear, trad-biopic screenplay from Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald. 


Attempts to punch up the structure by cutting between recreations of the material Laura Poitras shot (accompanied by a series of unconvincing performances from the likes of Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Joely Richardson – nice to see Nicholas Rowe, though) fail entirely. Stone possibly saw himself in the disillusionment of his main character, as previously charted with Charlie Sheen in Platoon and Wall Street and Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, but his dedication to giving us a rounder view of Ed, to investing us in the relationship between Snowden and girlfriend Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), is laughable. That kind of thing just isn’t his forte, and whenever we cut back to them the picture becomes an endurance test.


However, the most screen time is reserved for the entirely fictional – and ludicrous – relationship between Snowden and CIA Deputy Director Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans doing an at least entertaining Sam Elliot-gone-sinister impression), the former led by the hand down an entirely unstimulating rabbit hole, chaperoned and given special treatment: the one-on-one of mentor and pupil. It’s a very silly notion and comes across as such. The crudity of the beats is writ large. With Corbin looming over little Ed on a vast screen, just to show he’s always watching, everywhere. At least, during such moments, the picture has the virtue of cartoonishness. Not a very good cartoon, but it’s mildly diverting.


During all this, Snowden’s naivety underlines how easy it would be to conclude this entire affair is a fiction of whistleblowing. He sits there, permanently winded by revelations of drone strikes and mass surveillance. There are repetitive and poorly-devised question-and-answer sessions, as he incrementally learns the lie of the land and so feeds his doubts. These only ever come across as stagey and unconvincing – maybe (the real) Snowden was actually written by Hollywood?


Perhaps the biggest farce of the picture is how Ed is made out to have been a really important guy to the workings and dubious achievements of the NSA (Epic Shelter – “I built it”) and something of a genius to boot. Still, it does foreground that you really ought to wonder at someone who would resign from the CIA on ethical grounds, so crossing over to the NSA and then go back to the CIA again. Then again, he could be bona fide. Just surely not as lethargically as Stone manages to present.


Various familiar faces show up – Tom Wilkinson, Tom Hardy Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant and Nicholas Cage – to little consequence. It’s one of those pictures where the luminaries have turned up to support an idea, no matter how shoddily it is expressed, and even if doing so plays into the hands of those it purports to critique. 


Stone finishes with footage of the real Snowden. Of course, he does. The banality of this device is irksome in the extreme. It’s the laziest, and seeming most obligatory, option of the modern biopic. Have the courage of your dramatisation without showing you actually don’t by propping it up with the real deal. Stone’s dumb and dull movie is perhaps best summed up by Peter Gabriel’s specially composed ditty over the end credits: “There’s no safe place to go, now you’ve let that whistle blow”. Nice literalness there, Pete. 25 years earlier, Oliver Stone delivered a masterpiece of provocative, establishment-pricking filmmaking that managed to evoke (All the President’s Men) as much as it did influence (it’s one of the most extraordinarily-edited movies ever). Snowden isn’t even a bad film with fire in its belly. All the ayahuasca must have burnt out Stone’s creative fire.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

What a truly revolting sight.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) (2017)
(SPOILERS) The biggest mistake the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have made is embracing continuity. It ought to have been just Jack Sparrow with an entirely new cast of characters each time (well, maybe keep Kevin McNally). Even On Stranger Tides had Geoffrey Rush obligatorily returning as Barbossa. Although, that picture’s biggest problem was its director; Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge has a pair of solid helmers in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, which is a relief at least. But alas, the continuity is back with a vengeance. And then some. Why, there’s even an origin-of-Jack Sparrow vignette, to supply us with prerequisite, unwanted and distracting uncanny valley (or uncanny Johnny) de-aging. The movie as a whole is an agreeable time passer, by no means the dodo its critical keelhauling would suggest, albeit it isn’t even pretending to try hard to come up with …

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…