Trevor Noah, the South African comedian announced as the new host of the Daily Show. Photo: Justin Barlow/Gallo Images/Getty Images for MTV
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Why outsiders like John Oliver and Trevor Noah are taking over American late night TV

South African Trevor Noah, the newly-announced host of The Daily Show, joins Brits John Oliver and James Corden in the US’s coveted late-night slots.

The internet exploded on Monday morning with explainers of everything you – yes, you – need to know about Trevor Noah, the 31-year-old South African comic newly anointed as Jon Stewart’s successor. Considering that the focus of Noah’s three Daily Show appearances so far, where he played the part of the cosmopolitan mocking American ignorance of everything outside of our own borders, this is somewhat fitting. Noah is a star in his own country (here he is gracing the cover of South African GQ last October), where he hosted his own satirical news show, Tonight with Trevor Noah, a few years ago. But for most Americans (myself included), Noah is a virtual unknown, a young comedian who made his first appearance on The Daily Show just last December.

Yes, it’s a little disappointing that there is still no female late-night US TV host in 2015. (For that we’ll have to wait for Samantha Bee’s as-yet-unnamed Daily Show doppelganger to premiere on TBS later this year.) “We talked to women. We talked to men. We found in Trevor the best person for the job,” Comedy Central president Michelle Ganeless told the New York Times. With Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show at 11:30, Comedy Central will soon have two fake news shows hosted by black men – that’s two more than a year ago, but still one fewer than the number of white men named “James” on network late-night.

The most notable aspect of Noah’s background, though, might be something he shares with another Daily Show-correspondent turned host: he isn’t American. With John Oliver on HBO, the Brit James Corden on CBS’s Late Late Show, and now Noah, foreigners are taking over our late night desks. On both The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight, John Oliver’s Britishness has been a crucial part of his comedy, letting him shake his head at American injustice with the baffled outrage of an outsider instead of the smug righteousness of one of our own. Oliver has also given his show a more international scope, focusing attention on foreign elections and weird German scandals about Fanta.

However much they may have wanted to, the Comedy Central execs couldn’t get Oliver away from his cushy HBO gig. But as the mixed-race child of a Xhosa mother and Swiss-German father growing up under apartheid, Noah brings his own outsider perspective. “I was born a crime,” he says often in interviews and stand-up acts, where he jokes about confounding America’s racial categories, being mistaken for Mexican, and learning to speak German with a “distinctly Hitler-ish” accent.

Noah’s Daily Show appearances so far have been amusing but not particularly inspired, relying too much on Stewart’s ignorant American shtick. What made Jon Stewart so essential a decade ago and so stale in recent years has been his endless skewering of Fox News, a target that always deserving of scorn but not always worth the effort. As Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote in February, “Stewart’s Daily Show and its progeny have done their job almost too well. Cable news carries on – ideological, craven, and absurd as ever, but also exposed.” What gives me the most hope is that Noah isn’t just a newcomer to America – he’s a newcomer to American cable news. I’m not sure what we can expect from his political coverage; at this point, he probably doesn’t know himself. But I doubt it will be more of the same, and that’s something to celebrate. 

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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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