Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Joseph Stiglitz, Sheila Hale and John Banville.

The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz

 
“Economic power is shifting to the east, putting huge pressure on tax revenues. Meanwhile social needs are rising – because of economic inequality (including 25 million unemployed in Europe), on the one hand, and social pressures from demographic changes, on the other”, writes guest-editor David Miliband in his leader for the New Statesman this week. In this context, the publication of Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality is timely. Stiglitz has been “a notable crusader against austerity economics and in favour of tighter controls on financial capital”, writes Robert Kuttner in the NS. Kuttner praises Stiglitz’s “rare combination of virtuoso technical economist, witty polemicist and public intellectual”, as well as the economist’s “refusal to pull his punches” – a characteristic that has left him marginalised in Barack Obama’s Washington. “That is a huge loss for sensible policy,” warns Kuttner. The Price of Inequality moves beyond the social effects of rising inequality, to examine its negative economic consequences in producing a macroeconomic drag. Furthermore the economist demonstrates a hardening of class lines, with the top 1 per cent transforming into a hereditary elite. Stiglitz considers how a more egalitarian society is better suited to maintain macroeconomic balance. Significantly, Stiglitz argues that severe economic inequality is accompanied by a significantly uneven influence on the setting of economic rules. “This puts at risk not just decent capitalism but democracy, too,” Kuttner concludes.
 
Yvonne Roberts, writing in the Observer, praises Stiglitz for his passionate description of how “unrestrained power and rampant greed are writing an epitaph for the American dream”. Stiglitz does so not according to a revolutionary creed, “but in order that capitalism be snatched back from free market fundamentalism and put to the service of the many, not the few”. In this sense, Stiglitz joins a band of economists including Paul Krugman and Michael J Sandel “who are trying to inject morality back into capitalism”. But Stiglitz’s remedies to curb the wealth of the top 1 per cent are too extreme for Samuel Brittan, writing in the Financial Times. “For most of my writing career”, Brittan writes, “I have been unmoved by the 'equality' brigade”. Brittan finds a reflection of the state of US politics in “the shrillness and bitterness” of The Price of Inequality. Stiglitz’s unsurprising advocation of managed capitalism - top tax rates above 70 per cent, restoration of union powers and curbs on globalisation, leaves Brittan with waning sympathy. 
 

Titian: His Life by Sheila Hale

 
In a new biography of Titian, Sheila Hale attempts to plug the gaps in our knowledge of the Venetian painter, following the last full biography in English published in 1877. Mark Hudson, writing in the Telegraph, deems that the celebrated “richness and complexity” of his paintings is not reflected in details of his life. Hale may be “full of arcane and intriguing facts about the city”, but Hudson feels that “the book doesn’t get us much closer to Titian as a human being”. Hudson forgives this - “devastating revelations about such distant events can’t be summoned out of thin air”. Despite crediting to Hale an “evident, sometimes wide-eyed, awe of the artist”, Hudson observes that “Venice itself is Hale’s first love” and “rather than try to minutely integrate the art and the life, she provides great wodges of socio-cultural context then tries to weave Titian into it.” Hudson questions the complex “artistic personality” that must lie beneath, but concedes that “where there’s a good story to be told, Hale retells it efficiently” and seems happy to finally see shadows of contemporary characters “step into the light for the first time.”
 
The Independent's Fisun Güner laments a shy portrayal of Titian's character, saying “the artist appears as the shadowy companion to the thing that really seems to fascinate this biographer, Venice itself.” Güner finds that the biography makes for an enchanting journey through Venice, and while Titian himself is more difficult to explore, “it's easy to lose oneself in this absorbing portrait of La Serenissima”. Güner stops to note Titian as the “hard-headed businessman” in Hale's account, and though heaped under her “devotional praise”, “Titian didn't embody the Renaissance ideal of the artistic genius”; what Hale shows instead is a compelling but strategic account of what few facts we know about Titian and his city. Michael Prodger makes a similar judgement in the Guardian, adding that Hale's biography is “an example of measured scholarship, judicious opinion, and telling framing detail”, emphasising Titian as Hale portrays him: the great and humble genius we know him as today. 
 

Ancient Light by John Banville

 
“Prose stylists share a tendency to ripen and then rot”, observes Claire Kilroy in her review of John Banville’s Ancient Light for the Financial Times. While Banville’s The Sea won him the 2005 Man Booker Prize, The Infinities (2009) “proved a perplexing read”. Left at a crossroads, Ancient Light – the third instalment in Banville’s Cleave trilogy, finds the author electing “to have a moment”. Banville revisits Alexander Cleave, an actor whose only child Cass lost her life in mysterious circumstances in Italy. 10 years later finds the retired Alexander still lost in the difficulty of his daughter’s death, narrating a tale that is “illuminating and often funny but ultimately devastating”.  The strands of Alexander’s life blend “into a single meditation of breath-taking beauty and profundity on love and loss and death, the final page of which brought tears”.
 
A “sense of distortion, of objects and people being turned into things of “fragments and disjointure” persists throughout” as Alexander looks back at a love affair with his best friend’s mother from his teenage years, writes John Preston in the Telegraph . “We’re in a world where the past is more vivid than the present, and the dead somehow more alive than the living”, observes Preston, noting that while Banville’s use of language “dips into self-consciousness at times, it can also be startlingly brilliant”. But Preston considers the two halves of the book – the idyllic account of Alexander’s affair and the more “forced” contemporary narrative, and finds a combination that ultimately makes for “an uneasy pairing”. Leyla Sanai in the Independent  agrees that Banville “perfectly captures the spirit of adolescence, the body yearning for sexual experience, the mind blurring eroticism and emotion” and is “astute on the emotions of sexually abused boys who crave the sex but may resent their lost childhood”. Like Kilroy, Sanai finds that Banville’s rich, startling imagery makes for a reading experience “akin to gliding regally through a lake of praline”, his Nabokovian prose “a slow, stately process, delicious and to be savoured”.
 
Prophet warning: Joseph Stiglitz (Photo:Getty)
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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