Disappointing show for Brits at Golden Globes

Colin Firth and Christian Bale were the only British winners at yesterday's awards ceremony.

It might have been hosted by a Brit, but that was almost as far as British influence went at last night's Golden Globes, as the British contingent left with only two wins. Despite being tipped for success and gaining seven nominations, The King's Speech picked up just one award, with Colin Firth winning the best actor category. The LA-based Christian Bale was the other British winner on the night, winning the best supporting-actor award for his role in The Fighter.

The night's main winner was Aaron Sorkin's account of the founding of Facebook, The Social Network. Despite being criticised in some quarters - most eloquently by Laurie Penny - for its alleged misogyny (and inspiring a number of spoofs) the film took four awards, including best picture, best director and best screenplay.

The Golden Globe judges agreed with the New Statesman's Ryan Gilbey, who praised the film in his recent review, making it his film of the year.

Following in the footsteps of Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, Colin Firth found that the best way to win was to play royalty. After failing to pick up the best actor gong in 2010, Firth won for his portrayal of a stuttering George VI in this year's surprise hit, The King's Speech.

The other British success story of the night was supposed to be Ricky Gervais. After a slightly shaky reception last year, Gervais made no effort to change his act. With jokes about Charlie Sheen ("It's going to be a night of partying and heavy drinking. Or, as Charlie Sheen calls it, breakfast") and unnamed, allegedly (allegedly!) homosexual scientologists ("Also not nominated, I Love You Phillip Morris. Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. Two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay, so the complete opposite of some famous Scientologists then"), Gervais did not water-down his unapologetic comedy.

Gervais certainly seems to be living by his personal comedy mantra, which he revealed to Sophie Elmhirst in an interview in this year's Christmas issue of the New Statesman.

"I don't want to just do anodyne stuff [people] could do themselves. I don't want to go out there and point out the bleeding obvious. I don't want to remember the Seventies and get a laugh - it's cheating."

When asked whether Gervais would be invited back next year, the head of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who organise the Golden Globes, Philip Berk replied: "No comment."

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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