Universal soldiers

Asterix and Obelix, 50 years on

For the past couple of weeks, Asterix the Gaul's 50th birthday has been the subject of sustained media attention, thanks largely to the tributes that erupted all over Paris throughout October. (In 1959, a short Asterix and Obelix comic strip in the magazine Pilote was published -- it wasn't until 1961 that the first full "album", Asterix the Gaul, started a ball rolling that soon became known as "le phénomène Astérix". So be prepared for further celebrations come 2011.)

But, depressingly, most commentators have seen the golden jubilee of René Goscinny's and Albert Uderzo's greatest creation as an opportunity to explore the way in which the Asterix brand has become a little tarnished in recent years -- following the mediocre film adaptations starring Gérard Depardieu, for example, as well as Uderzo's decision to sell the series rights to the mega-publisher Hachette and the high-profile feud with his daughter that ensued -- and to ignore the undiminished brilliance of the books themselves. A piece that appeared in the Times is typical. "It happens to plenty of men," it suggested. "They turn 50 and all the vim disappears. But it shouldn't happen if you have access to a magic potion that revives your powers faster than Viagra."

An excellent essay by Mary Beard that appeared in the LRB a few years ago does a better job of celebrating Goscinny's and Uderzo's genius. It even reserves praise for the several albums that Uderzo has composed alone since Goscinny's premature death in 1977 (which have been the focus of some particularly scathing birthday criticism).

But having spent the weekend rereading my collection of Asterix and Obelix titles, I think that something rather important has, for some reason, gone largely unacknowledged in all the furore: how extraordinarily well both men's work (and, of course, Anthea Bell's and Derek Hockridge's English translation has aged. Far better than, say, Tintin in the Congo, yes. But, more than that, in a manner which makes the fact that they were written decades ago almost entirely irrelevant.

Which raises the question: why is it that Asterix stories feel as fresh as they do, thirty or fifty years on? Here are three suggestions of mine. Feel free to make any of your own in the comment box below.

Literary references: The stories' penchant for referring to cultural touchstones -- Asterix in Belgium (1979) opens "with apologies to: George Gordon, Lord Byron, Mr Wm Shakespeare, Mr John Milton and Peter Breughel the Elder" -- is well known. That these references invariably come from canonical classics -- from Horace's Odes to Cervantes's Don Quixote (the eponymous knight-errant and his squire make a cameo appearance in Asterix in Spain (1969) -- ensures that Asterix's adventures feel timeless.

Metanarrative: Asterix in Belgium and Asterix and Son (1983) feature flourishes of an altogether contemporary literary postmodernism. "Look, we're only just starting this story," Asterix explains early on in the former. "It's much too soon for a banquet."

Well-chosen modern touches: Instead of alluding to 1960s- and 1970s-specific issues that might have quickly lost their relevance, the books ingeniously make use of durable modern ideas. So, a character in Asterix and Caesar's Gift (1974) suggests that "if anyone ever decides to go digging up the past behind this house, he'll have a few archaeological problems on his hands". And Obelix points out in Asterix and the Banquet (1965) that, compared to boar, "Oysters are all right, but you can eat boar even when there isn't an 'r' in the month . . ."

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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