The Buzz: Snowden and the Struggle of Recent History on Film

Welcome to this week’s Buzz. Today we look at the problems of portraying recent history on film through Oliver Stone's new, biopic Snowden. Then we celebrate the life of playwright Edward Albee by looking back on the most famous adaptation of one of his plays which, after half a century, still has a nasty bite to it. We also look forward to the new film from fashion designer turned film director, Tom Ford.

If you have any thoughts, please comment below.

Film: Snowden: History is used to explain the present. As stories, pertinent themes are extracted from historical narratives to learn from, whether it’s the triumphs or the failures. That is why fictional portrayals of recent history often times do not work. That is why Oliver Stone’s Snowden does not work.

News broke about Edward Snowden, the young NSA whistleblower, unleashing thousands of documents about the United States illegally wiretapping phones, computers and any other technology in the summer of 2013. It is a story that everybody knows on a superficial level, yet when pressed, the details become hazy. Wasn’t he a hacker? Wait, why is he receiving asylum from Moscow? Isn’t he a traitor to this country? Isn’t he a hero?

We as a country haven’t made up our minds yet on how we should perceive Edward Snowden. He is barely a partisan issue; a question on presidential debates in which the correct answer should be to disavow him. With so many people having such divisive opinions about the man, to make a movie on Edward Snowden so soon would simply not work.

Yet Oliver Stone needed to make a Snowden movie. He is a man whose whole career has been obsessed about the tainting of the American dream. In the 60’s, Stone enlisted in the army and served Vietnam, where his relationship with American values first began to deteriorate. His heroes have gone through similar battles: from Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July to his Showtime documentary series, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States. American values are worth fighting for, but what if the nation that espouses those values seem operate on a whole other system? That can ruin some people, and for the typical Oliver Stone character, it does.

Snowden is the perfect hero to embody the Stone protagonist. What is shocking about Snowden is that it is such a straightforward biopic. The film is told through flashback as Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is trying to coordinate with three different journalists, Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Ewan MacAskill of The Guardian (Tom Wilkinson) and filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) on how to best handle the release of this sensitive issue.

As the Bourne-esque tension is ramping up, Snowden retells his story to journalists on how he tried to join the army reserve but never completed training due to injuries. His idealism (he was a staunch conservative) in the American way led him to the CIA where he impressed a bunch of people with his technical savvy. And soon, he made his way up the government food chain of information, being put in charge of monitoring possible terrorist agents that involved tapping into the information of people using unethical means, all while trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend (Shailene Woodley).

Stone does his best to explain the intricacies of NSA data tapping, but the movie is too rote for any real value to derive from other than the fact that people would rather see a fictionalized version when there is a documentary. Citizen Four, directed by the aforementioned Laura Poitras, does a much better job (This is probably the highest budget behind the scenes featurette of all time).

The story of Snowden is too fresh for a movie like this to be made. It is hard to derive value from something that is this recent without seeming trite. Two of the biggest cultural events of the year are based on the O.J. Simpson trial; The People vs. OJ Simpson and Made for America. What those two had was two decades’ worth of context built up. These filmmakers were able to look at the trial on a macro level, along with the racial tensions that caused it and derived from it. The results are commentary that audience members are able to apply to the racial tensions of today.

With Snowden, I do not think that we have yet faced the immediate ramifications of what it means to be in a post-Snowden world. For many people, the internet still feels like a safe harbor to watch cat videos or read commentary on the latest Oliver Stone flick. The results are a film that is unsure of what is going to happen and what all of this means exactly.

Rewind: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Last week we saw the death of the legendary playwright, Edward Albee, at the age of 88. For those uninitiated to the darkly biting and snide dialogue of Albee, there is no better way to start than with the movie adaptation of his most famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Directed by Mike Nichols and starring the tumultuous, real life couple of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, this film is dark comedy at its most pitch black. The film follows the night of two pairs of couples, one still burgeoning and the other in its twilight. From there, the evening devolves into one giant passive aggressive dig after the other all due to the fact that these people do not know how to talk to each other. Even today, it is shocking to see how Virginia Woolf hits in the heart of gender norms within the institution of marriage. The film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and is also known as one of the films that signaled the beginning of the end of the Motion Pictures Code that would bring on the New Hollywood period. No better way to pay tribute to Edward Albee than to celebrate his work.

Coming Soon: Nocturnal Animals: When you think Tom Ford, you think chic fashion. But, when I think Tom Ford, I think, “Why hasn’t he made a movie since A Single Man?Luckily I do not have to wait anymore as the trailer for his newest film, Nocturnal Animals, dropped last week. Starring two of the best Hollywood stars working today, Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, this looks like a pulpy thriller that has the gleam of importance. What is it with fashion designers and the obsession with the profane? The film focuses on an art gallery owner who is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel which she considers a veiled threat of revenge. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s prestigious Venice Film Festival. Previous winner has included Anomalisa and The Look of Silence, so Nocturnal Animals is currently in good company. The film is scheduled to be released on November 16, where you would assume it would throw its hat into the ring for Oscar contention (I cannot believe it is that time already).

In the Loop: Rest in peace to Curtis Hanson, the director of films such as LA Confidential and 8 Mile. He is best known for his exceptional ability to write tense suspense and drama. He had a deft ability of jumping from different genres, from suspense like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle to the intimate family dramedy, In Her Shoes. He was 77 years old.

The first TV renewals of the young fall season have already begun. FX has renewed Atlanta and Better Things for a second season following strong ratings both from audiences and critics during its early run. Atlanta is the dramedy about two cousins trying to make it in the Southern hip-hop scene created by Donald Glover and got rave reviews from us last week. Better Things was created by Pamela Adlon, an executive producer and writer on Louie and comedian about her trying to raise her children while also pursuing a full time acting career.