Maximum surrender

"Lawrence of Arabia" is back in the cinemas, bigger than ever

 

David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia is back in cinemas this week in a new 4K restoration of the reconstructed version (first seen in its entirety in 1988). No, I didn’t know what 4K meant either so I had to draw on the wisdom of the oracles. (I used a search engine.) It’s the pixels, dummy. 4K  denotes a resolution of approximately 4,000 pixels wide and 2,000 pixels high, compared to the previous standard of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. That’s more pixels than you’ve got popcorn in your Mega Meal Deal Bucket.

But we need not concern ourselves with pixels. What matters is the new clarity they provide, the familiar spectacles which they render with fresh vividness: Peter O’Toole’s eyes, which are now so alluringly blue that you feel you could dive right through the screen and into those azure peepers, leaving behind only a sand-splash; the tiny orange flame from which Lean cuts to the singed Arabian sunrise. When the wind ripples across the desert, you would swear now that you could make out each individual grain of sand shifting beneath it as if under the writhing of a vast invisible sidewinder.

I’d never seen Lawrence of Arabia on a cinema screen before. And though it’s a cliché to say that seeing it on television isn’t really seeing it all… well, it’s a cliché for a reason. The decades of respect and admiration lavished on Lean’s best-known and most-loved work (here is Steven Spielberg talking about the effect the movie had on him) has had the effect of interring it, as with most films regarded widely as masterpieces. Seeing it at the cinema can only rescue it from its reputation and bring it back to life. (I’d also recommend Kevin Jackson’s thorough and compelling study of the film, in the BFI Classics series, as an après-screening chaser.)

This is a film partly about depth of experience and depth of vision—both literally, in its most famous shot (of Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali riding toward the camera from afar), and figuratively, in its use of a flashback structure which purports, like Citizen Kane, to explain a man who turns out in the final analysis to be beyond mere explanation. So it feels only right that seeing it at the cinema takes a sizable chunk out of one’s own day: once you factor in the overture (how I love overtures, especially at the cinema, where they are now more of an anachronism than in the theatre), an entr’acte and an intermission, you’re looking at four hours, more or less, in the dark.

I’m a big fan of intermissions at the cinema. The ones stipulated by the filmmaker, I mean, rather than those imposed by the management. (I don’t know how widespread the practice was, but I remember the Odeon chain simply halting The Godfather Part III and Dances With Wolves so that one of their employees, who had clearly drawn the short straw that day, could flog some choc-ices from their wearable tray.) Intermissions are only commonplace now for Bollywood films, which are structured with that necessity in mind, but many other movies could really benefit from them. It suits Lawrence of Arabia to have that break approximately two-thirds of the way through; I feel it helps us to register more keenly the change in tone that’s marked by the arrival in the desert of the journalist Jackson Bentley (played by Arthur Kennedy), a fictionalised version of Lowell Thomas. With Bentley’s appearance comes an acknowledgement of the mythologizing process which T E Lawrence underwent, and a slight shift by the picture into a more analytical and contemplative sphere.

The theatrical engagement paves the way for the release of Lawrence of Arabia on Blu-ray. Blu-ray, schmu-ray: see it at the cinema for maximum impact, maximum surrender.

Lawrence of Arabia is on release from Friday.

A portrait of T E Lawrence

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.

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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