Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

The Gatekeepers. Selected cinemas, nationwide. Released 12 April.

The Gatekeepers is an intimate, interview-style documentary featuring six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service agency. Directed by Dror Moreh, it focuses on the personal experiences of men at the forefront of the Six Day War. The remarkable openness of the participating interviewees has received a great deal of interest. Discussing the successes and mistakes of their time during the Occupation, they shed light on the wider controversy surrounding the war.

Opera

The English National Opera: The Sunken Garden. Barbican Centre, London EC2Y 8DS. 12 – 20 April.

Tonight, The Barbican will host the world premiere of The Sunken Garden. Directed by composer and director Michel van der Aa, with a libretto written by author David Mitchell, whose novel Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the Booker prize, The Sunken Garden includes both 2D and 3D film. Focusing on the disappearance of a software engineer and the people who try to find him, it describes itself as an all new “occult mystery” film-opera.

Exhibition

Tell Me Whom You Haunt: Marcel Duchamp and the Contemporary Readymade. Blain Southern Gallery, Hanover Square, London W1S 1BP1. April – 18 May.

Tell Me Whom You Haunt places ten leading contemporary artists in dialogue with existing pieces by Marcel Duchamp, to explore the idea that found or ‘readymade’ objects lose their previous signification when re-contextualised. The exhibition includes responses from contemporary artists such as Olaf Nicolai, Robert Kusmirowski and Nasan Tur, all of whom play with the idea of ‘hauntings’ and the ways in which memory manifests itself.

Concert

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Colston Hall, Bristol, BS1 5AR. Thurs 18 April.

On Thursday, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra will perform a wordless ‘night at the opera’, conducted by Andrew Litton, with Vadim Gluzman as lead violinist. It will include pieces from Korngold, Bruch, Wagner and R Strauss. To supplement this exciting concert, Bristol ensemble conductor Jonathan James will be giving a talk on Saturday 13th April. Discussing the inferences and themes behind each piece, he will historically and socially contextualise the music to instil a new resonance to the performance. His talk will also be at Colston Hall.

Theatre

Fences. Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge CB2 3PJ. 15 – 20 April.

August Wilson's 1987 drama Fences is arguably one of the most famous American plays of the 20th century.  Set in 1957, between the Korean and Vietnam wars, it follows the life of Troy Maxson – played by Lenny Henry, a once gifted athlete whose job as a garbage collector now leaves him resentful and embittered. This new version, directed by Paulette Randall, has received high praise from critics including Lyn Gardner. Writing in the Guardian, she describes the portrayal of Maxson as “so vivid that you can't help being gripped by this story of a man who may have thrived, but who is fenced in by the era into which he was born.”    

Director of The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh, at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Larry Busacca/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