Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Janan Ganesh, Philip Norman and Anne Applebaum.

George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor by Janan Ganesh

While George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor has an "inside feel" owing to the "generous access to the Chancellor’s inner circle" afforded to Janan Ganesh, it is ‘sometimes at the cost of independent judgment,’ writes Peter Oborne in the Telegraph. Perhaps a more pertinent criticism, given the implicit promise of the book’s title, is the omission of a substantial analysis of the Chancellor’s economic views and political manoeuvres: "This book lacks any serious exploration of Osborne’s economic ideas or his relationship with the Treasury." John Hanning, writing in the Independent, begins his review by advising those depressed by David Cameron to steer clear of his chancellor’s biography. After outlining their remarkably similar trajectories, Henning shows how the two differ: "Osborne's heritage – Notting Hill, St Paul's, a mother who works for Amnesty, a father with an ultra-fashionable shop in South Kensington – is much more that of the metropolitan sophisticate than Cameron's." Hanning reminds us on more than one occasion of the author’s relationship with his subject. Osborne is a "close political friend", and Ganesh a "long-standing admirer". Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the author deftly treads the path between "getting access to the subject and a willingness to criticise or chase uncomfortable truths". Read a review of George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor in the New Statesman later this week.

 

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman

Julie Burchill sees the publication of this Jagger biography as an opportunity to review the rock star himself, bypassing the book almost completely. "It's his attitude to money, I suppose, as much as his idiot-dancing which renders Jagger so unattractive to me; stinginess is the halitosis of the soul, and MJ reeked of it," she writes in the Guardian. It’s obvious where her affections do in fact lie: "Casting the biggest shadow of all, like some epic scarecrow, is Keith Richards, a man whose glamour and charisma increase at the same rate as the wrinkles on that beautiful Red Indian face. Ask yourself if any reigning film star would have dreamed of basing the hero of a hit film on Jagger – as Johnny Depp did on Richards in Pirates of the Caribbeanand you would have to say no." John Walsh, writing in the Independent, identifies the same negative traits that Burchill does (stinginess, misogyny, arrogance) but notes that Norman "radiates sympathy for the old devil". Perhaps this sympathy derives in part from the gentle debunking of aspects of the Jagger legend: "Rather than a randy, rebellious extrovert, [young Mick] was shy and slow to show affection," "he was thought too ugly to succeed," and "he wept over Chrissie Shrimpton". But while these more vulnerable sides of Jagger are revealed, so too is a cold, driving professionalism: "Mick’s robotic ability to go 'on with the show' just seems chilling," wrote Kate Mossman in last week’s New Statesman. ‘It’s hard to believe that, hours after Brian Jones was found dead, he went ahead with a Top of the Pops appearance and then attended a ball at the home of Prince Rupert Lowenstein.[...] This book re-examines the notion of what it takes to be a true 'rock star'."

 

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 – 56 by Anne Applebaum

In 1945, the Red Army was briefly welcomed when it marched into eastern Europe. "Yet goodwill towards the liberators soon gave way to horror at the looting, random violence — and worse," writes Peter Conradi in The Sunday Times. Making use of never-before-seen documents from recently opened archives, Anne Applebaum re-examines the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. "Iron Curtain is modern history writing at its very best; assiduously researched, it wears its author's considerable erudition lightly," writes Roger Moorehouse in the Independent. "Pending large-scale revelations from still-closed Soviet archives, it sets a new benchmark for the study of this vitally important subject." Moorehouse notes that, in Applebaum’s assessment, communism was always doomed to fail: "Communism contained within it the seeds of its own destruction, not only in its disastrous economic performance, but also in its relentless desire to control every aspect of human activity." "The chief problem was the failure of the Soviet economic model — which created a growing gap in living standards with the West," asserts Conradi. "In this exhaustive and entertainingly written account, Applebaum, a former Pulitzer prize winner, captures well the absurdities of communist life familiar to anyone who experienced the system first hand."

 

George Osborne holds up the Budget Box as he leaves No. 11. 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