Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Music

toe, XOYO, 23 September

Japan’s answer to Sigur Ros. Quite simply one of the finest, most under-appreciated bands in the world, toe finish their first European tour in a decade this Sunday in Shoreditch. Kashikura, Mino, Yamane and Yamazaki have since 2000 created some of the most complex, beautiful and dynamic (mainly) instrumental pop music anywhere in the world. Their latest album For Long Tomorrow incorporated salsa and jazz influences, expanding their large guitar and percussion-based instrumental repertoire to include samples, vibraphones and a Rhodes piano. The band tour in support of their new EP, The Future is Now.

Crafts

Fine Cell Work Pop-Up Shop, 5 Grosvenor St, W1K 4DJ, 10:00-18:00 daily until 30 September

Fine Cell Work is social enterprise which promotes skilled, creative needlework as a means of raising self-esteem, skills and motivation among prison inmates. 75 per cent of the stitchers are men who are paid 37 per centof the final sale price (a far better cut than most). The group have set up a pop-up shop in the heart of Mayfair to display and sell their exquisite needlepoint and embroidered home furnishings, many to templates by designers such as Nicky Haslam, Cath Kidston and Daisy de Villeneuve. There will also be ‘sew-cials’, ‘get to know and sew’ sessions and talks with ex-prisoners about their experiences participating in the Fine Cell Work prison programme.

Film

Safar: A Journey Through Popular Arab Cinema, ICA, 21 – 27 September

Described as “the most ambitious season of popular Arab film ever seen in the UK”, Safar aims to make Arabic film accessible for a new British audience, whilst at the same time providing a real treat for connoisseurs of world cinema. Curator Omar Kholeif hopes that it will entertain and absorb, as well as provide an alternative entry-point for understanding the Middle East. Read the New Statesman’s interview with him here.

Festivals

Split Festival, Ashbrooke Sports Club, Sunderland, 21, 22 and 23 September

"The Best Event in Sunderland" returns this year to showcase everything that’s great about contemporary north eastern music, food, fashion and comedy. Part-organised by indie-rock band The Futureheads, who headline on Sunday evening, the line-up includes Mercury nominees Field Music, The Unthanks and Kathryn Williams, as well as names such as Pulled Apart by Horded, Public Image and King Creosote. Other fine outfits not to be missed include Let’s Buy Happiness, This Ain’t Vegas and Algiers. In response to the poor job situation for young people across the region, festival organisers have frozen last year’s ticket prices and introduced a new range of concessions for students and the unwaged.

Literature

Soho Literary Festival, The Soho Theatre, 21 Dean St, W1D 3NE, 27 – 30 September

Presented by The Oldie, this year’s Soho Literary Festival returns with an elegant line-up featuring former PM John Major on the wonders of music hall, Michael Frayn discussing his novel Skios and a classics quiz hosted by Cambridge don Mary Beard. A full programme is available online and all events take place in the three cosy auditoriums at the Soho Theatre. Discounts are available for those books to attend more than one event.

The Futureheads, who part-organised Split Festival. Photograph: Getty Images
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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