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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The Divergent Series: Allegiant

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jeff Daniels, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Zoë Kravitz, Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson, Bill Skarsgård, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts

Director: Robert Schwentke

Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Bill Collage, Adam Cooper, Noah Oppenheim


A typical problem with film franchises based on novels that decide to split their final instalments into two separate parts is that the first half tends to suffer because of it. When the Harry Potter series did it first, and then The Hunger Games afterwards, both of their penultimate chapters served only to set up the finale and therefore did not stand up as individual films with their own self-contained stories. Although I like both of these franchises, watching the first halves of their final episodes proved to be quite tiresome as they required me to sit through two hours of a non-story in order to reach the good parts. When I have to watch that kind of movie in a franchise that I don’t even like, it becomes the Chinese Water Torture. That, in a nutshell, is how I felt watching Allegiant.

Following the insurgency in the previous film and the revelation of an outside colony overseeing their city, Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Christina (Zoë Kravitz) and Peter (Miles Teller) escape Chicago to seek them out. After venturing into the wasteland that is the world outside their city, the group are discovered by soldiers who escort them to the Bureau of Genetic Welfare. There Tris meets David (Jeff Daniels) who explains that Chicago is an experiment designed to fix the damaged genes of their people by isolating them in the hopes that they can eventually birth individuals of genetic purity, the divergents. Tris is told that she alone is pure while the rest of her people are all “damaged”. David explains that he hopes to use Tris to find the answers to their problems and to save their people. Meanwhile Chicago continues to grow restless under the rule of Evelyn (Naomi Watts) as Johanna (Octavia Spencer) and the Allegiant try to stop her from overthrowing the factions and imposing a ruthless dictatorship.

The Divergent series has never made much sense to me with its factions and convoluted rules and whatnot, but this whole idea of genetic experimentation just did my head in. As Jeff Daniels adopted his ‘I am definitely not a villain’ expression and explained to Tris the particulars of their history and the reasons behind the experiment, I gave up on trying to care about four sentences in. While I had my issues with The Hunger Games, at least that series knew to keep things simple. Divergent gets so bogged down in longwinded exposition and feeble explanations that I almost felt like I was watching a Wachowski movie (at least then I might have been treated to some impressive visuals and decent action). It doesn’t help to have a plot that refuses to move along and advance as the themes of rebellion from Insurgent get played out all over again. Most of what happens in the outside world consists of Tris and her friends sitting on their hands as they wait for the film’s two-hour runtime to expire so that the next movie can finally begin. This film has all the aimlessness and confusion of the first two films with an extra dose of mind-numbing boredom thrown in.

Over the course of this franchise Shailene Woodley’s performance has been its one consistent saving grace as she manages to breathe life into what is otherwise a bland and characterless protagonist. In this film however Woodley’s acting abilities cannot do anything for the fact that her character is given almost nothing to do. Most of her screen-time is dedicated towards disinterested conversations between her and David about genes and human nature and how special she is until she proceeds to take part in a climax that I would have called underwhelming if I had actually had any expectations or investment. I genuinely hope this film at least propels Woodley to stardom the same way The Hunger Games did for Jennifer Lawrence because she deserves far better than this. In fact, the rest of this franchise’s cast (minus Jai Courtney) deserve better.

While watching these finale-part-one movies has consistently proven to be a largely dull and tedious experience, at least with Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay I was invested enough in the franchises to follow them through and in the end found the ultimate payoff to be satisfying. This film however has taken everything that I already disliked about the Divergent series and turned it up to 11. The constant exposition dumps, the one-dimensional characters that put great talent to waste, the sheer absence of any sort of inspiration or originality; Allegiant brings all of these elements into full force. Standing as what is easily the weakest instalment in what is already a weak franchise, I can only hope that the climax they are building up to in Ascendant proves to be extraordinary. I won’t be holding my breath though.

The Divergent Series: Insurgent

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet

Director: Robert Schwentke

Writers: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback


Marking the latest addition to the increasingly popular YA genre, Insurgent is the highly anticipated sequel to last year’s Divergent. Therefore I’m going to briefly share my feelings on the first film before diving into the second one. Simply put, I really did not like Divergent. I’m not against the YA genre (I do think The Hunger Games series is rather good); I just found this particular film to be boring and stupid. The main character is wholly uninteresting (despite being portrayed by an incredibly talented actress), the story is tedious and clichéd, and the universe that they inhabit with all of those rules about factions and Divergents and whatnot does not make any sense whatsoever. Defenders of the film claim that it all makes much more sense if you’ve read the books, but doesn’t that defeat the purpose of adapting it into a film? Anyway, to go into more detail than that would take up too much space, so suffice it to say that I was not looking forward to watching the sequel.

Insurgent picks up right where Divergent left off with Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James, who has yet to adopt a different facial expression), Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and Peter (Miles Teller) on the run from the Erudites. They find sanctuary at Amity, under the protection of Johanna (Octavia Spencer), and try to keep a low profile. The memories of her late parents and of Will, the friend she killed in the last film in order to save herself, are now haunting Tris’ dreams and are weighing heavily on her conscience (which apparently is as good a reason as any for Tris to give herself a stylish haircut). Meanwhile Jeanine (Kate Winslet) has uncovered a mysterious box that was found in the home of Tris’ parents which supposedly contains a message from the city’s founders and can only be opened by a Divergent. She thus orders her troops to lead a citywide manhunt to capture any and all Divergents. The fugitives are soon forced to leave Amity when Eric (Jai Courtney) shows up and is tipped off to their whereabouts by Peter.

As they make their escape Tris, Four and Caleb encounter the Factionless. One fight later Four ends it all by revealing his real name to them, Tobias Eaton. This revelation allows the party safe passage into the Factionless base where they are taken to meet Evelyn (Naomi Watts), the leader of the Factionless (who apparently have access to ample weapons and resources despite being declared outcasts by the rest of the factions) and also Tobias’ mother. She appeals to Tris and Four, declaring her intention to lead a revolution against Jeanine and how she needs their help to form an alliance with the Dauntless to aid her. Tris and Four do not want to go to war and are only interested in finding their friends. However as the hunt for the Divergents grows, as the unrest between the factions becomes greater, and as Tris’ presence becomes more dangerous to those around her, she comes to realise that she cannot escape who she is and that she cannot run away from this fight.

Although Insurgent suffers from many of the same weaknesses as Divergent, it is nevertheless a clear improvement. Tris, while still lacking in personality, is at least given a mildly interesting story-arc about overcoming the guilt of her parents’ deaths and Woodley manages to give quite a good performance despite sparse material. The film also has some visually stunning moments, particularly the dream sequence from the trailer in which Tris attempts to save her mother from a burning building, and also boasts of some excellent production design. Some actors from the previous film, particularly Kate Winslet and Miles Teller, were able to deliver notably better performances as they became more accustomed and more comfortable in the skin of their characters. Of all the new characters, Evelyn was a welcome addition through the virtue of having an actual personality (and the badass outfit certainly doesn’t hurt). There is however little else to praise about this film.

Insurgent, like its predecessor, suffers from a severe lack of reason and logic. This universe simply doesn’t make any sense and too many questions are left unanswered! What exactly are Divergents and why do they seem to possess special abilities that other people lack? Is it because they are more capable than everyone else or are they biologically different? Why are they considered to be inherently disruptive to the natural order of things? How is being Divergent any different from being Factionless? How does the revelation at the end explain anything or make any sense? The film never provides an adequate answer to any of these questions and ultimately builds up to a twist ending that only brings up even more questions. The film also suffers from an illogical plot, an overcomplicated setting, and bland characters with inconsistent motivations (seriously, what the hell is Caleb’s deal?). This film may not be as soulless as the first film was, but it was still trying and unsatisfying to sit through. The next film better damn well have some answers.

★★

White Bird in a Blizzard

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane, Angela Bassett

Director: Gregg Araki

Writer: Gregg Araki


One of the things that can make any film grating to watch is if there is a lack of investment. If the characters don’t care about what happens to them or what they are going through, why should the audience care? This is the reason why I found White Bird in a Blizzard to be a frustrating film. There is no commitment on its part, nothing compelling or captivating for the audience to hold on to. It attempts to work as both a gripping mystery and as an emotional coming of age story, but succeeds at neither.

The story is about Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley), a seventeen-year-old girl living in suburbia with her parents. She comes home from school one day to find that her mother (Eva Green) has disappeared without a trace. She recounts flashbacks of the circumstances that preceded this incident which reveal the wild and unbalanced behaviour that her mother had exhibited before and the abusive tendencies she demonstrated towards Kat and her timid, spineless father (Christopher Meloni). However Kat seems unbothered by her disappearance, figuring that her mother has just walked out on her and her father, and simply tries to move on with her life. What frustrated me the most about this story is the severe indifference shown by the main character. The film does make it clear that Kat and her mother shared an unstable, unhappy relationship, but surely an incident of this magnitude would provoke some sort of reaction out of her. Whether it be anger, despair, confusion, concern, contempt, or even relief, an incident as immense, as unexpected, and as alarming as this should surely be met with a little more than a shrug of the shoulders.

Perhaps the emotional blankness in this film results from a lack of investment on the filmmakers’ parts, or it could stem from a lack of understanding of how emotions work in films. One trend I noticed while watching White Bird in a Blizzard was a tendency for the characters to use direct, straightforward dialogue. What I mean by this is that the characters in this film have a habit of explaining exactly what it is they are feeling, what it is that’s happening to them, and what it is they’re going through. Some writers do this because they think that this is how they are supposed to communicate emotion in a film. However, by doing this, they fail to utilize the potential of film as a visual medium. One of the main rules that filmmakers are told to apply is ‘show, don’t tell’. This film tends to have its characters explain their feelings out loud rather than just show them. It isn’t enough for the characters to describe their emotions, they have to actually express them. Otherwise the emotions never register and the audience is thus unable to empathise with the characters. The film understands this to an extent as evidenced by Kat’s dreams about her mother, but apart from them there are barely any other scenes in which the characters are able to achieve genuine human moments. It’s as if the film does not trust its audience to understand and interpret the characters’ feelings and motivations based on their characterisms or their actions and must instead spell everything out.

The dream sequences were the one part of the film that I actually did like a lot and so I think I’ll elaborate on them a bit. In her dreams Kat finds herself in a snow-covered wilderness searching for her lost mother. The film allows the visuals to do all of the talking as the environment provides a reflection of Kat’s feelings: cold, isolated, and lost. Her fragility and vulnerability are shown as she calls out into the empty landscape for her mother and receives no answer. The otherworldly state she finds herself in emphasises how surreal the experience of her mother’s disappearance has been. Woodley, a talented young actress who really deserves to be in better films than this one, shines in these scenes as she depicts the alienated state that Kat has found herself in. If only the rest of the film’s emotion was expressed as strongly as in those scenes.

This could have been a really good film. The drama inherent in this kind of concept was practically gift-wrapped. However the filmmakers either never realised or never understood how to get into the emotional heart of this story. Kat’s feelings for her mother’s disappearance are given a backseat as the film focuses more on her sexual exploits with her dim-witted neighbour and the handsome cop investigating her mother’s case. Even towards the end when the mysterious circumstances surrounding the mother’s disappearance are brought into question and give rise to the film’s mystery, the lack of engagement up to that point prevents the audience’s interest from being captured. Throughout the film I never found myself caring for Kat or the effect, or lack thereof, that her mother’s disappearance had on her.

★★