Snowden

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage

Director: Oliver Stone

Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone


After depicting such controversial episodes in the USA’s recent history as Kennedy’s assassination, the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War, it makes perfect sense for Oliver Stone to tackle the story of Edward Snowden. Indeed, the story of the celebrated whistle-blower who exposed the true depths and scope of the government’s post-9/11 surveillance capabilities seems almost tailor-made to suit Stone’s taste. There is conspiracy and corruption, an idealist who loses faith in the institution he dedicated his life towards serving, and a complex social and political debate at its core about the conflict between privacy and security. The question is whether the Platoon and JFK director could revive the energy and inspiration that allowed him to make such remarkable films all those years ago and channel them into his latest project. The answer is somewhat. Although Snowden is not Stone at his best, there is certainly a drive to this film that has been lacking in his work in recent years.

The film opens in 2013 with the documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) going to Hong Kong in secret to meet with a government agent. There they are met by Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a former CIA employee in possession of stolen files detailing the NSA’s illegal mass surveillance programme. We’re then treated to a chronology of Snowden’s career in intelligence starting with his discharge from the army for health reasons and his recruitment into the CIA. After getting the attention of Deputy Director Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) through his proficiency with computers, Snowden is taken to The Hill where he receives his first glimpse into the CIA’s surveillance operations. At this time he starts dating Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), who subsequently follows him to Geneva, Japan and Hawaii. With each placement Snowden becomes more disillusioned with the unchecked disregard for privacy taking place in his own government until finally he resolves to let the truth be revealed to the world.

The story and its revelations are familiar to anyone who was watching the news at that time or who has seen the great Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour. What this film sought to do was examine the human element of that story. Who is Edward Snowden and what drove him to do what he did? The film’s version of him, portrayed strongly by Gordon-Levitt, is shown to be very much conflicted throughout the film. On one hand he feels a strong sense of duty towards his country and wants to do his part to keep it safe. However he cannot abide the limitless, intrusive measures his government is able to take to ensure that security and their indiscriminative use of those measures. What’s worse, in his view, is the total lack of transparency and awareness. It’s one thing for the government to be able to access someone’s webcam even when their computer is switched off, but the people have no idea that such a method is even possible. There is a clear sense of Snowden’s inner turmoil being conveyed as he struggles with the moral dilemma between national security and personal freedom and it is gripping.

The parts where I felt the film struggled the most were during the more ‘human’ aspects of Snowden’s story. His relationship with Lindsay for instance did not feel like an organic part of the story. It felt more tacked on to me, as if the film decided to throw in some relationship drama because this is the kind of story that’s supposed to have some relationship drama. It feels too much like these scenes belonged to another film; whenever they appeared they interrupted the rhythm and stole away from whatever momentum the film had managed to build. I also felt that there was too much hero-worshipping on Stone’s part. The debate on whether Snowden is a criminal or a patriot is an important one and it is Stone’s prerogative as an artist to let the audience know which side he agrees with. However it felt too much like Stone was more interested in celebrating Snowden than he was in humanising him, which simply made for a less thought-provoking and compelling film.

This is a story that Stone was destined to tell and it is a crying shame that he couldn’t have made it back when he was at the peak of his ability and ambition. He does a great job of depicting the bigger story taking place; the disconcerting conspiracy that took place and its foreboding Orwellian implications, the betrayed values and corrupted ideals, and the vitally difficult and challenging debate that is still taking place today. In the middle of it all however Stone loses track of the human element that was so essential to his earlier work, even with the advantage of a highly capable actor delivering a formidable performance. The story definitely revitalised a part of Stone, allowing Snowden to display a level of passion that has been missing from his films for far too long, so it is possible that we may be seeing the beginning of a comeback for the director. I certainly hope that’s the case because we could really use an Oliver Stone right about now.

★★★

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Alice Through the Looking Glass

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: James Bobin

Writer: Linda Woolverton


Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of my favourite stories and I absolutely love the Disney cartoon to death. Although this story has been adapted to the big screen time and time again, the 1951 animation is one of the only true successes. Disney understood that it is the madness that makes Wonderland work and fully embraced it. Wonderland is a world of nonsense where logic and reason go to die. It is a world where up is down, black is white and wrong is right. The fun comes from watching the rational, level-headed Alice attempt to apply reason to her encounters only to get lost in the insanity of it all. This is something that the Disney cartoon appreciates but that the 2010 Tim Burton film does not. Here the ingenious surrealism of Carroll’s work takes a backseat to something altogether more boring and trite: prophecies, politics and civil war. The film didn’t work because it attempted to introduce logic and sense to a world where it didn’t belong and created a story that was illogical and nonsensical. Sadly the sequel makes the exact same mistake.

Three years after taking over her father’s role in his trading company, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) returns from China to find that she will lose her family home unless she agrees to sell her ship and stake in the company. Unable to cope with this ultimatum, Alice runs away and happens upon Absolem (Alan Rickman) who leads through a mirror back into Wonderland (I refuse to call this world by the name they use in these films). There the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the Tweedles (Matt Lucas), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and all her other friends inform her that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is in poor health due to the loss of his family in the Jabberwocky attack. Alice sets out to meet Father Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and persuade him save the Hatter’s family. After he turns her down Alice takes the Chronosphere and travels into the past herself to change history. Time however is hot on her heels and is intent on stopping her before she destroys the very fabric of the universe.

Everything that was wrong in the previous film is wrong in this one. The colours are a little brighter and there are occasional glimpses of a world that actually resembles the Wonderland from Carroll’s stories but nevertheless the core problems remain the same. There is no madness, no wonder and no magic in this movie. Wonderland is a world of nonsense inhabited by crazy and fantastic characters where strange and wonderful things happen; being in Wonderland should feel like being in a dream. Instead the film tries to bring you down to Earth with its stories of Alice’s struggles as an independent woman in the oppressive Victorian world and of the tragic histories of the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen. If there has ever been a franchise that should not be restrained by the confines of a plot, Alice in Wonderland is it. A plot by its very nature has to be logical, coherent and structured. Wonderland is none of those things. Ironically the film is also none of these things but for the wrong reasons!

The film introduces the concept of time travel which should have made for an incredible adventure by allowing Alice to explore an entirely new dimension of Wonderland’s insanity. But then we learn that there are rules that have to be followed because the past cannot be allowed to change and paradoxes cannot be allowed to happen or else the very fabric of the universe will be undone or something like that. To make matters worse the film decided to introduce even more logic into the universe by explaining why some of these characters became “mad” in the first place. I really wish this film had a face that I could slap because it infuriates me how they can take something so wonderful, fun and creative and produce such a bland, clichéd and joyless story. This very idea of the Mad Hatter having father issues or the feud between the Red and White Queens being caused by some terrible secret is just so galling to me as it stomps over everything that made the original stories fun. It isn’t imaginative, inventive or surreal; it’s just overdone and dull.

Wasikowska’s Alice continues to be disinterested in the world around her and the incidents she experiences. She turns in the same one-note performance that made her a bore in the first film even though the film wants her to be some kind of strong, spirited figure who defies 19th century norms. Putting aside that I’m not convinced a feminist message is warranted in a story that has no point, the character in this film does not earn this status in any meaningful way. Many of the side characters from the first film return in this latest instalment and, if you enjoyed any of them the first time around, I suppose you’ll like them fine here. For me the only one who even came close to resembling her literary counterpart, and by extension the only one I found to be at all enjoyable, was Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. Father Time is the biggest new character they introduce and he is actually quite interesting at first with his clockwork design and Werner Herzog accent. However there’s nothing about his personality that stands out because, just like the rest of the characters, it’s too grounded in logic and reason.

The kindest thing I can really say about this film is that it didn’t enrage me as much as the first film did. At least this time the drab, grey world of “Underland” (God, how I hate that name) has been replaced by actual colour. There was also the odd occasion when a character would actually do something that their character would do, that is something strange and nonsensical. Overall however this film was a bore and a displeasure to watch from beginning to end. It has next to nothing to do with the inspired, fantastical world that came from Carroll’s imagination and fails to conjure up anything even remotely interesting, fun or creative to take its place. It fails to capture that sense of imagination and wonder that is so crucial to making Wonderland the dream-like adventure that it should be. I believe that one of the most offensive things a film can possibly do is take a story that holds immeasurable promise and possibilities and then squanders it. This is why Alice Through the Looking Glass is such an offensive movie to me. The only reason this film even exists is to capitalise on the success of its equally infuriating predecessor. This film is unimaginative and lifeless and is entirely unworthy of the material it is based on.