The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Festival
The London Korean Film Festival, various venues, 22 October-3 November

Across various London venues, comprising 33 events, the seventh London Korean Film Festival will feature a combination of films ranging from low-budget independent works to big-budget, box office hits. This year’s festival sees the return of the animation section which will include the violent morality tale King of Pigs, a film that has been doing the rounds on the international festival circuit. “Regardless if you are a connoisseur of Korean cinema or completely new to the country’s film scene we have created an exciting and varied program that will delight, thrill, scare and, most importantly, entertain you,” says festival director Hye-jung Jeon.

Music

Barclaycard Mercury Prize, Channel 4, 1 November, 12:10am

The 20th Mercury Prize for best album sees the list of nominees dominated by guitar bands – including the Macabees – and singer-songwriters, most notably former Pulp guitarist Richard Hawley. But it’s Plan B who’s tipped to win. His third album marks a change in direction, his sound harder, his music more political. Elsewhere on the list is the funky-jazz outfit Roller Trio and South London solo artist Jessie Ware.

Art

Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, National Gallery, 31 October-20 January 2013

The National Gallery’s first major photographic exhibition will show the work of leading photographers alongside historical paintings to emphasise how photographers draw on the traditions of fine art to inspire their own work. The exhibition will show the works of painters, early photographers and contemporary photographers ordered by traditional genres such as portraiture, landscapes and nudes. The exhibition will feature images from British and French photographers as well as works from international contemporary artists.

Television

Homeland, Channel 4, 28 October, 9pm

Last week, former marine, current congressman and reluctant, part-time al-Qaeda operative Nicholas Brody killed his tailor (who was also his purveyor of bespoke explosive vests). A devastating result was that this caused him to be late for his wife’s party – which made her angry. Meanwhile, twitchy, jazz-loving, ex-CIA agent and current English teacher Carrie Mathison gets un-friended by the CIA – again – before being vindicated by seeing Brody’s “By the time you watch this, I would have killed a lot of people, including myself” terrorist farewell video. This week we can expect more of the same kitchen-sink shenanigans. Brody’s video will be shown to Estes, Carrie’s former boss, who will authorise surveillance on Brody. But will Carrie get to put her twitchy eye to the telescope?

Film

Hackney Halloween screenings, Round Chapel, Hackney, London, 30 October

On the eve of Halloween, the creators of the Rooftop Film Club will host a short series of classic spooky films. The venue, Hackney’s Round Chapel, will only add to the ambience of horror. The event will comprise four screenings, two of which are suitable for children: ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Shaun of the Dead, Ghostbusters and The Lost Boys. 2012 marks the thirtieth anniversary of ET and a special edition Blu-ray was released this month to mark the occasion. A note on the dress code and a disclaimer from the organisers: Fancy dress is not enforced but encouraged. Please note that Experience Cinema does not accept responsibility for any lost limbs, teeth, or fingers!”

Richard Hawley: one of the nominees for the 2012 Barclaycard Mercury Prize. Photo: 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