Snowden Review: Story half told

Director: Oliver Stone

Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone (screenplay), Luke Harding (book), Anatoly Kucherena (book)

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto


Release date: September 22nd, 2016

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA, Germany

Running time: 134 minutes


Best part: Levitt and Woodley’s chemistry.

Worst part: The sluggish pace.

There are many words to describe whistleblower Edward Snowden. Descriptors like patriot, terrorist, rebel, whistleblower and tyrant have been used by all manner of people. In spite of finger pointing and name calling, there is no doubt this is a fascinating tale. 2014’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour exposed the truth behind one of the 21st Century’s most alarming leaks of classified information.

As Citizenfour proved, the fiery debate over cyber-security, privacy and whistleblowing rages on. So, with the documentary and internet providing maximum information, what does docudrama Snowden do differently? Not much. We first meet Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) being kicked out of special forces for dodgy legs. A devastated young Snowden joins the CIA under Corbin O’Brian(Rhys Ifans)’s watchful eye. The computer genius rises up the ranks and delves further into the system. He finds the government and security agency NSA’s secrets. His discoveries affect his and long-term girlfriend Lindsay Mills(Shailene Woodley)’s relationship. Years later, he reaches out to documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen McAskill (Tom Wilkinson) for help.

Obviously, Snowden finds the dirty details, steals secrets then leaks them to the press before going into exile in Moscow, Russia. This ongoing story is far from reaching a peaceful conclusion. A better docudrama would have detailed the journey’s ethical, emotional and psychological toll. Sadly, like The Fifth Estate, Snowden becomes a straightforward, useless stunt. Unlike Citizenfour, or anything the internet would provide, its delivers little information about Snowden’s identity, job or life-changing events. Each sub-plot and conflict merely blurs together. Set to a sluggish 134-minute run-time, it shifts lackadaisically between life moments. Instead of building drama and dread, he moves between jobs and countries without any impact. For better or worse, the narrative explores the nitty-gritty of analyst/spy work (finding contacts, moving between outposts etc).

Oliver Stone is a veteran director out of his league. He began with jagged-edge thrillers (Wall Street, Natural Born Killers) and war-dramas (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July). However, his last few (from Alexander through to Savages) have bitten the dust. Like the latter efforts, Snowden drags a top-notch premise and cast through the mud. Being one of Hollywood’s most opinionated filmmakers, Stone’s interest in Snowden seemed promising. However, his paranoia is almost laughable. The second act, when not languishing in Snowden and Lindsay’s relationship politics, delivers extended montages about cyber-security. His old-man-yells-at-cloud approach broadly targets the US Government, multi-million dollar corporations and those behind the scenes. Stone clumsily attempts to jazz up desk-jockey work and hacking with flashy visuals. Levitt and Woodley escape unscathed, delivering stellar impersonations of real-life counterparts.

Snowden had potential to tell a detailed story, bring Stone back from career suicide and showcase a quality cast. Instead, it’s a meandering, boilerplate procedural with little insight or even basic information. Stone’s out-of-touch direction and point of view deliver a snooze instead of a success.

Verdict: A wasted opportunity.

Captain America: Civil War Review: Braun vs. Iron

Directors: Joe & Anthony Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan


Release date: April 28th, 2016

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 147 minutes


Best part: The airport showdown.

Worst part: Minor leaps of logic.

Let’s face it, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has eclipsed everything DC Comics/Warner Bros. could possibly hope to achieve. In its 13-blockbuster run, this franchise has set the bar for every other studio now clamouring for their own extended universes. With Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice turning from promising idea into jumbled, obnoxious mess, Marvel is still going strong. Can you believe it’s been eight whole years since Iron Man came out? Neither can I, neither can they.

instaCaptain America: Civil War looks set to be the most fulfilling blockbuster of 2016. The movie succeeds on every level, delivering on its promises and refusing to show fear or cynicism. The plot itself is more intricate and meaningful than your average MCU installment. Following up from the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Civil War opens up with the new, unique Avengers squad on its latest mission in Lagos. Tracking down weapons trader Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo), their efforts end with multiple civilian casualties.

The world looks set to turn against our troupe of sexy, spandex warriors, convinced humanity is better off without them. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are scalded by US Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) for their shocking collateral damage, aiming to push United Nations sanctions into effect. Whereas the team feels justified in their actions, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) side with the government. After Steve’s frenemy Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is blamed for a catastrophe, Cap goes on a one-man mission to find answers.insta

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo along with long-standing screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, coming back after The Winter Soldier, have successfully taken the reigns from Joss Whedon. Their latest provides a sense of balance most blockbusters either avoid or can’t quite grasp. Its plot, unlike most cluttered superhero epics, follows one streamlined path from beginning to end. From the prologue and opening action sequence onwards, its character turns and narrative twists remain steady. Like the original Civil War storyline in the comics, the UN bill – titled the Sokovia Accords here – starts a ticking time bomb to the team’s obliteration. The conflict splits the story between both sides evenly – fusing its narrative, thematic, and emotional resonance throughout the exhaustive 147-minute run-time.

Team Cap and Team Iron Man have significant points of view. Cap and co. believe it’s their responsibility to protect the world and bring justice to anyone on the wrong side of the law. Cap – divided between the worlds of yesterday, today, and tomorrow – believes a bit of ‘ol’ fashioned’ goes a long way in this paranoid, surveillance state era. Stark’s troupe, however, points out the mass casualties already caused. The former weapons/tech. giant turned humanitarian warrior puts his foot down, outlining the escalation in worldinstawide violence and shady bureaucratic border-hopping. Both agendas are reasonable, literally and figuratively tearing the franchise’s two most beloved characters apart.

The Russos take on the monstrous task of following on from previous installments and setting up new ones. The pre-established characters and talented performers are given their due, with all sub-plots fitting together like intricate jigsaw pieces. Threads including Steve and Sharon Carter/Agent 13(Emily VanCamp)’s dynamic, Natasha’s diplomatic work, Sam and Bucky’s quarrels, Vision and Wanda’s impending relationship, Stark and Rhodes’ everlasting friendship and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Scott Lang/Ant-Man(Paul Rudd)’s involvement make for numerous light-hearted gags and soul-crushing moments simultaneously. It even throws in new characters including vengeful Wakandan prince T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), spunky youngster Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and scheming, sympathetic human villain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) with textbook precision.

This globe-trotting, ambitious adventure delivers some of the MCU and modern Hollywood’s most inventive action sequences. The much-talked-about airport set-piece marks the franchise at its absolute peak. This impressive sequence brings our 12 major superhero characters together with aplomb, showcasing the astonishing array of fighting styles, abilities, and personalities. Pouring gravy onto instathis already hearty steak, the opening sequence, car chase, and heart-wrenching finale provide some ass-kicking delight in between the political discussions and character-driven interludes.

Captain America: Civil War successfully highlights Cap’s never-ending conflict with the 21st Century and The Avengers’ struggle to reassure the human race of its importance in the universe. Thanks to esteemed direction, a stacked cast, fun character-actor cameos, big laughs, and even bigger emotional rifts, this is the franchise’s most mature and momentous installment yet. Fingers crossed Infinity War Parts 1 and 2 can live up to our ridiculous expectations.

Verdict: Another rich superhero epic/fulfilling MCU installment.

Rosewater Review – Tears of a Satirist

Director: Jon Stewart

Writers: Jon Stewart (screenplay), Maziar Bahari, Aimee Molloy (book)

Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Haluk Bilginer

Release date: November 14th, 2014

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA

Running time: 103 minutes



Best part: Gael Garcia Bernal.

Worst part: The stylistic flourishes.

Over the past decade, one man – picking apart globe-spanning wars, the global warming debate, social and cultural shifts, and the Global Financial Crisis – has fought tooth-and-nail to speak his mind. Keeping political figures, A-listers, and social icons honest, late-night TV satirist Jon Stewart has raised The Daily Show from middling returns to renowned ratings successes. Known for his groundbreaking monologues and charisma, it’s difficult not to become entranced by his mannerisms and viewpoints.

Gael Garcia Bernal.

Gael Garcia Bernal.

Last year, Stewart stepped away from his hit news-comedy extravaganza to follow his dreams. Handing the reigns over to British Comedian John Oliver, Stewart spent three months (From early June to late August) directing and writing his first feature production. Rosewater, a movie with a title much lighter than its content, is a worthwhile experiment. Stewart places media analysis on a higher pedestal than anything else. The movie chronicles one of the past decade’s most gruelling true stories. Set in 2009, it captures a specific time in Iran’s history. That year, the country’s citizens locked horns over a major question: Who should be leading the country? President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, having driven Iran into multiple crises, was pitted against promising opposition hopefuls Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. We follow London-based journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), an expectant dad tasked with covering the election and civil unrest. Filming interviews with politicians and voters on both sides, his work pulls everyone together as the election reaches breaking point. As the conflict shifts from words to war, our camera-clutching reporter captures and publishes footage of a violent protest. From there, Ahmadinejad-leaning authorities seek to ruin Bahari’s immediate future. Threatened with ridiculous accusations, the government attempts to break our bubbly journalist.

Bernal & Kim Bodnia.

Bernal & Kim Bodnia.

Overshadowing Stewart’s notable ambitions, Rosewater, from first inklings of its creation to release, has suffered major criticism from the Iranian Government and state TV hubs. Accused of consulting the CIA and top-tier Zionists, the media personality proves even his harshest critics wrong here. Certainly, the movie resembles a high-minded vanity project. Sporting his stark wit, watchability, and overwhelming intelligence, his first feature is essentially a two-hour rant against some of the world’s most despicable people. Adapting Bahari and Aimee Mallory’s memoir Then They Came for Me, Stewart has taken notes from Hollywood’s best and brightest. Ironically, having been jokingly accused of plagiarism by Ben Affleck, Stewarts’ feature stands proudly alongside Argo. Similarly to Affleck’s Oscar-winning effort, this political drama revels in its creator’s confidence, verve, and will to succeed. Crafting a highly liberal stance against global injustice and ignorance, the movie’s viewpoints on geo-politics and foreign policy ring true. Unafraid of the facts, Rosewater‘s post-9/11 commentary fits between jingoistic and patronising. Unlike most modern political-drama/thrillers, the movie revels in its smaller moments. The first act, outlining our lead character’s daring mission, crafts several thought-provoking dialogue sequences and enlightening touches. After local driver Davood(Dimitri Leonidas)’s introduction, Rosewater delves enthusiastically  into Bahari’s mindset. Driven by the truth, the movie’s protagonist is worth capturing on camera and sharing with the world. Despite the intentional tonal shifts, this political-drama works as a docudrama/historical account more so than a work of art.

“You have a real weapon and you choose not to use it.” (Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), Rosewater).

Bernal & Dimitri Leonidas.

Bernal & Dimitri Leonidas.

Despite the compelling story and characters, Stewart’s stylistic choices dilute Rosewater‘s potency. Throwing subtitles, news clips, hashtags, and flashbacks across the screen, his erratic flourishes distract from the message. In addition, the supporting characters, despite their emotional and thematic relevance, receive minimal development. Tackling biased news media and government policies erratically, the movie occasionally resembles  an extended Daily Show episode. In fact, show regular Jason Jones – an intrinsic part of the true story – re-lives his experiences here. Before crossing over into self-indulgence, the over-the-top first half gives way to the gripping and electrifying second half. Whilst Bahari is sent to Evin prison for treason, the movie rapidly switches from tepid political-thriller to meaningful prison-drama. Charting Bahari’s behaviour throughout his 118-day incarceration, Stewart’s direction transitions from manic to subdued to gritty. Threatened with life-long imprisonment and execution, Bahari’s story lingers in the consciousness. The opening, beyond describing rosewater’s spiritual powers, outlines Stewart’s agenda. Oddly enough, the title specifically refers to the lead torturer(Kim Bodnia)’s codename. Matching “Rosewater” at every turn, their spirited debates – referring to Bahari’s love of Western culture – are worth the admission cost. Bernal overcomes ethnic obstacles (a Mexican A-lister cast as a real-life Iranian subject) to envelop the role. Boosting his already-impressive resume, the underrated character-actor delivers a grounded and multi-layered turn.

Stewart, transitioning beautifully from late-night satire to political-thriller/docudrama, has his heart in the right place. His style, despite several overblown visual flourishes, matures throughout Rosewater‘s gripping second half. Defined by its raw emotional impact, Bernal’s magnetic performance, and inspiring prison-drama story, the movie makes for a commendable and spirited first effort. Walking the thin line between comedy and drama, its immense intelligence, brawn, and appeal are worth lobbying for.

Verdict: A heartening and worthwhile first feature.