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 Perhaps Oliver has been replaced by a clone, and Dave was an eerie harbinger of his own creative demise?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.

Popular posts from this blog

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

All I saw was an old man with a funky hand, that’s all I saw.

The Blob (1988) (SPOILERS) The 1980s effects-laden remake of a ’50s B-movie that couldn’t. That is, couldn’t persuade an audience to see it and couldn’t muster critical acclaim. The Fly was a hit. The Thing wasn’t, but its reputation has since soared. Like Invaders from Mars , no such fate awaited The Blob , despite effects that, in many respects, are comparable in quality to the John Carpenter classic – and are certainly indebted to Rob Bottin for bodily grue – and surehanded direction from Chuck Russell. I suspect the reason is simply this: it lacks that extra layer that would ensure longevity.

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

I work for the guys that pay me to watch the guys that pay you. And then there are, I imagine, some guys that are paid to watch me.

The Day of the Dolphin (1973) (SPOILERS) Perhaps the most bizarre thing out of all the bizarre things about The Day of the Dolphin is that one of its posters scrupulously sets out its entire dastardly plot, something the movie itself doesn’t outline until fifteen minutes before the end. Mike Nichols reputedly made this – formerly earmarked for Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson and Sharon Tate, although I’m dubious a specific link can be construed between its conspiracy content and the Manson murders - to fulfil a contract with The Graduate producer Joseph Levine. It would explain the, for him, atypical science-fiction element, something he seems as comfortable with as having a hairy Jack leaping about the place in Wolf .

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un