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 Perhaps Oliver has been replaced by a clone, and Dave was an eerie harbinger of his own creative demise?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

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

No, I ain’t a good man. I ain’t the worst either.

A Perfect World (1993) (SPOILERS) It’s easy to assume, retrospectively, that Clint’s career renaissance continued uninterrupted from Unforgiven to, pretty much, now, with his workhorse output ensuring he was never more than a movie away from another success. The nineties weren’t such a sure thing, though. Follow-up In the Line of Fire , a (by then) very rare actor-for-hire gig, made him seem like a new-found sexagenarian box office draw, having last mustered a dependably keen audience response as far back as 1986 and Heartbreak Ridge . But at home, at least, only The Bridges of Madison County – which he took over as director at a late stage, having already agreed to star – and the not-inexpensive Space Cowboys really scored before his real feted streak began with Mystic River. However, there was another movie in there that did strong business. Just not in the US: A Perfect World .