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

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Release date: September 22nd, 2016

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA, Germany

Running time: 134 minutes


3/5

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.

Suicide Squad Review: Not-so-supervillains


Director: David Ayer

Writers: David Ayer

Stars: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman

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Release date: August 4th, 2016

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 123 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Will Smith and Margot Robbie.

Worst part: Jared Leto’s Joker.

Nothing in modern cinema is more divisive and distressing than the DC Extended Universe. Man of Steel divided critics and audiences but made enough coin to kick off the franchise. However, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was a laughable misfire and fundamental misunderstanding of the genre. The series relied on Suicide Squad to pick up the ball and continue running. Sadly, it hits the ground with a deafening thud.

Suicide Squad is a prime example of overwhelming potential obliterated by underwhelming execution. Writer/director David Ayer, despite being given 6 weeks for the screenplay, had reportedly made a cracking flick. However, after BvS’s disastrous critical response, the studio went into overdrive with reshoots and marketing schemes. DC’s latest misfire sees Ballbuster Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) dusting off a unique idea to combat the Metahuman threat kick started by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman etc. Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) task supervillains/Belle Reve Penitentiary inmates including hit man Deadshot (Will Smith), deranged chick Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), pyrotechnic ex-gangbanger El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Aussie thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), monster Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and mercenary Slipknot (Adam Beach) with completing a deadly, government-sanctioned mission in Midway City.

Suicide Squad begins with several interesting concepts and fun moments. Ayer – whose previous efforts include WWII-thriller Fury and LA-gangland movies like End of Watch – is suited to its team-up premise. The movie hits a rollicking pace during the first third. Kooky character bios, flashbacks, narration and music cues deliver thrills and funnies. However, studio meddling quickly overruns Ayer’s lean-and-mean vision. Attempting Guardians of the Galaxy-style action-comedy, it’s light, breezy tone undercuts the ugly narrative and themes. The story jumps between past and present, warping an otherwise straightforward men-on-a-mission story. The tone lurches wildly from black comedy to action-thriller without relevance between scenes. Endless montages – Waller’s character introductions, getting the team together etc. – delay the mission itself. The mission, however, boils down to generic plot twists, a thin story structure, and an underwhelming villain. Dr June Moone/Enchantress(Cara Delevingne)’s plan, to resurrect her deity brother Incubus to take over the world, makes her 2016’s most uninspired antagonist.

Suicide Squad also disappoints fans of the Joker and DC’s broad range of superheroes. The famous antagonist appears randomly in flashbacks and action sequences. His and Quinn’s nasty relationship, worthy of its own feature, is wedged in. Jared Leto’s portrayal compares poorly to Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson’s. The broad, irritating mannerisms and ghetto bling/gangbanger style are baffling. Ben Affleck’s Batman and Ezra Miller’s Flash appear briefly to connect instalments. Ayer’s tough, brawny direction extends to the visual style; cramming fluoro colours, grimy exteriors and wacky costuming into every space. Ayer shoots and choreographs the action with textbook precision. His creation is partly salvaged by its actors’ raw enthusiasm. Robbie conquers Quinn’s first cinematic appearance. Smith, after several bland performances, is back to his charismatic best. Meanwhile, Davis, Courtney and Kinnaman succeed in underdeveloped roles.

Suicide Squad represents everything good, bad and ugly with Hollywood. The talented cast and filmmaker put 110% into every wild and wacky second. However, studio meddling and lack of depth make it one of 2016’s many ‘dark and gritty’ blockbuster disappointments.

Verdict: An ambitious misfire.