Capitalism, Michael Sandel and Michael Moore

Doha diary, part 1

I didn't arrive in Doha yesterday in time for the inauguration of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival at I M Pei's wonderful Museum of Islamic Art, which looks out over the Doha Sea at one end of the Corniche. So I missed seeing Martin Scorsese, Jeff Koons and Robert de Niro, among others, treading the red carpet ahead of a screening of Mira Nair's film Amelia, which stars Hilary Swank as the pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart.

I missed the festival after-party at the Four Seasons, too, having to make do instead with cocktails in the lounge of my hotel. (The hotel is the most easterly outpost of a chain of boutique hotels, and is blandly luxurious, in the style of such establishments the world over. Its lounge appears to be the destination of choice for the gilded youth of Doha, who smoke and drank heroically -- the drinking and the smoking surprised me -- and danced to a set by an expensively imported French DJ.)

I awoke this morning to discover that I'm staying in the middle of a vast building site. Towers of varying heights, some of them vertiginously tall, are sprouting wherever one looks. Doha, it seems, is a kind of dusty tabula rasa on which a 21st-century city is being built in staggeringly short order. Regular visitors tell me the city is unrecognisable from as little as five years ago.

Qatar, and Doha in particular, is currently in a frenzy of self-assertion -- it's the sort of place where strangers tell you, proudly and unbidden, that GDP grew by 11 per cent last year. As well as hosting the film festival, Doha is currently the venue for a high-profile women's tennis event, and in a couple of weeks' time will welcome the national football teams of England and Brazil for a friendly match. Indeed, so confident is this tiny emirate that it's bidding to host the 2022 World Cup -- as giant billboards throughout the city remind you.

And shortly before the festival opened, it was announced that the emir's daughter, who, like many of her counterparts in other Gulf states, is an enthusiastic and generous patron of the arts, was talking to the Palace of Versailles about co-funding an exhibition in Doha of the work of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. (The past, meanwhile -- that is, the prehistoric era before the discovery of petroleum in Qatar in 1939 -- exists here only in facsimile. This evening, I was taken to the Souk Waqif, an architecturally faithful reconstruction of the original souk that the government tore down some years ago.)

The highlight of the festival this afternoon was a screening of Michael Moore's documentary Capitalism: a Love Story. I've often thought that Moore's work combines demagoguery and sentimentalism in a distinctively indigestible way, but this film is different. Sure, he does his ordinary-schlub-speaking-truth-to-power schtick, but his evisceration of the behaviour of the custodians of US capitalism, on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, is extraordinarily powerful -- on account of its almost guileless quality of moral censure and disapproval. Think of it as an extended howl of what the American philosopher Michael Sandel calls "bailout outrage".

That's it for now. I'm off in a moment to an outdoor, midnight screening at the Museum of Islamic Art of Steven Soderbergh's new film The Informant. More on that tomorrow.

UPDATE: Frustratingly, I got to the museum just now, only to be told that the Soderbergh screening had been cancelled "on the order of the authorities". Mysterious. I'll try to find out why.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump