Review: David Attenborough's Africa

David Attenborough's latest series shows we're not so different from the beasts.

The BBC have impeccable timing; just as the nation prepares for the onset of a case of January Blues, national treasure David Attenborough arrives on our screens, bringing with him a glorious display of animals and nature both industrious and wild.

Africa is a six-part series exploring the wildlife of the rich continent housing vast rainforest, savannah and desert. As well as being educational, last night’s series opener captured some amusing comparisons between us and our wilder counterparts. We share the same instincts of survival and the quest for love, as well as some remarkably similar social reactions.

Belligerent alpha male giraffes sparring in a Western-style showdown made for gripping viewing, with the upper hand changing unpredictably; an unnerving reflection of our society where two testosterone-fuelled youngsters might lock horns over a lady rather than a watering hole.

The featured Golden Wheel Spider epitomises most humans’ natural instinct in times of danger. After numerous attacks (by a wasp of all things) the arachnid cuts his losses and does what any self-respecting being would do: he curls up in a ball and cartwheels down the sand dune to safety.

The interplay between the Black Rhinos was at first extraordinarily intimate, using the latest photographic technology to capture never-before seen night-time interactions. This, however, quickly descends into something comical. We witness one Lothario trying his luck with an unsuspecting female, who at first seems open to the idea of cavorting in the dark - but upon her suitor’s below average performance, she pretends to be asleep. As David Attenborough points out, 'a girl can only put up with so much'.

It is unsurprising that this masterpiece took more than four years to shoot, so intricate are sequences like the Pompilid Wasp foraging for water in the expanse of the Kalahari Desert. As ever, Attenborough’s familiar, soothing and gently enriching narration aids Africa's intrigue. Menial, routine activities such as stalking prey and caring for young become fascinating and frequently amusing. The understanding of nature he has after 60 years is unrivalled, and his passion is endlessly apparent.

Majestic and enlightening, with quirky editing and some astounding shots, the series brings to light new creatures and explores new sides to those which are so familiar. David Attenborough told the New Statesman in 2011, “If you remove the licence fee, it would be gone in a decade”. As long as programs like Africa continue to be made, the fee is worth every penny.

Read the New Statesman's latest interview with David Attenborough here.

Black Rhinos. 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