On the run, a mysterious man in possession of explosive top secret information absconds to a foreign country where journalists ponder what he will do next and frazzled high-ranking authorities bark orders such as “we need to locate the source!”
Then it happens: the insider-cum-whistleblower feeds his documents to a major news organisation and becomes the world’s most wanted man, exposing shocking government surveillance operations conducted by the western world’s greatest superpower. He jets to another country. His future is anything but certain.
The story of how (and why) Edward Snowden disseminated his revelatory NSA documents has the hallmarks of a riveting movie. Already reports have surfaced about a potential production that may or may not be in the works sometime that may or may not be in the near future.
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Australian-born director Phillip Noyce has reportedly expressed interest in a Snowden picture, even putting forward an actor for the lead role (for the record: Neighbours alumni Liam Hemsworth).
This is how quickly the media/entertainment cycle spins these days: a news event spreads like wildfire and before you’ve scrolled to the bottom of the page somebody in the movie business has already talked about which Hollywood hunk should get top billing.
But last week we saw something quite curious – evidence that tinsel town has been pipped to the post by a very wide margin. A small Hong Kong production company has already released a Snowden film, which you can watch here:
They shot it in four days on a budget of a few hundred dollars.
Verax (“based on the events of Edward Snowden”) is only five minutes long, but don’t discount it as a kneejerk short knocked together without thought or discipline. It is quite the contrary.
A throbbing Nolan-esque baseline plays cacophonic digital roars as we watch wide shots of Hong Kong CBD, then cut to three stern looking men in office attire drinking coffee in a meeting room.
The frame drunkenly floats left to right, almost a parody of the kind of shaky cam techniques that so boils the blood of David Stratton, but it works. A whoosh of intensity comes on extremely quickly and is precisely sustained in the coming minutes. Sometimes critics describe a film’s pace with variations of the line “there’s not a dead minute in it.” Here there’s not a dead second.
“We just got a hit from the airport that an NSA contractor just landed in from Hawaii,” says one of the men.
Another asks “what do we know?” as he leafs through pages in a manila folder, observing a photograph of a late 20s looking man with glasses, facial hair and a t-shirt. This is the guy, no question. And for the record, the actor looks a hell of a lot like Edward Snowden.
“He failed to report his travel plans in advance.”
“Shit, that’s not good.”
Cut to Snowden peering into a mirror. A trio of images follow: he sits on a large green chair; he performs push ups; he fidgets with a Rubix cube. These shots take up a combined seven seconds. The message is snappily imparted that Snowden is restless and there is something on his mind. Many feature films take entire scenes to convey such messages, achieved here in slightly longer than the time it takes to turn a door knob.
The efficiency with which dramatic meanings are translated from the stark matter of factness of a script to the living, breathing energy of a film informs audience’s perceptions in significant ways. Viewers often find cause to dislike filmmakers when they grasp the meaning of a sequence well before it concludes, believing they have been intellectually underestimated in the process.
After a snappy moment at a Hong Kong police HQ, where we hear a ticking effect on the soundtrack — another tool plucked from the bag of pressure cooking techniques – we see a three second cut and fade of Snowden looking out a window, then a succession of pictures that generate momentum by rapidly fluctuating between vantage points.
We move from a lovely wide frame of a bustling neon city to a mega close up of Snowden twiddling his thumbs; so close both his hands can’t fit in the frame. A five second shot zooms in on Snowden’s face and ends with a doorbell ringing, which evokes a sense of alarm, impending dread, a call to action.
Verax concludes with the actual speech, and a small amount of footage, from Snowden’s “the public needs to decide” interview with the Guardian.
It’s possible to dismiss Verax as mere entertainment styled in the manner of a rat-tat-tat Hollywood pulse pounder, but it’s more than that. The film’s greatest asset is its showcase of narrative efficiency; of getting key points across using the language and arrangement of images to solicit logical (not necessarily emotional responses) and doing so without needing to put too fine a point on it.
In seven seconds, we know Snowden is restless and contemplative. In two seconds, we understand by absorbing a journalist’s face and body language that she isn’t happy with a response from her boss and will pursue her own agenda independently. The film is littered with nano inferences that imply rather than define meaning, those inferences then moved towards larger dramatic purpose.
Instead of considering Vorax in the context of a work that needed to be a handful of minutes long, boxed into a sharable and viral-friendly format, it is more interesting to question why it would need to be any longer. The film might not benefit from the relationship built between audience and character, which generally takes time, but it absolutely achieves everything within its scope.
Narrative efficiency is a subject ripe for discussion given Hollywood’s current culture of pumping out overlong bells and whistles blockbusters. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a movie based on bathtub toys, runs for 157 minutes. The Lone Ranger runs for 149 minutes. Man of Steel runs for 143. None of them justify their running times and there are only so many occasions you can throw around a word like “spectacle” to describe something that is far heftier and heavier than it ought to be.
The latter movie in particular could have benefited from Verax’s bam-bam style, which doggedly avoids dramatic repetition. Director Zak Snyder’s Superman reboot opens with a 20 minute prologue detailed the end of planet Krypton — only to have Russell Crowe resurface later and articulate verbally what transpired, as if we were too stupid to understand it the first time. After adult Clark Kent saves colleagues from an oil rig explosion, Snyder cuts to a scene in which child Clark Kent saves classmates from a bus crash. In an already overlong movie, the messages underlining these sequences are virtually identical, and aren’t the only instances during which extraneous double-ups occur.
When I recently expressed my hope on Twitter that “crisp” 90 minute running times would become de rigeur in Hollywood, several people responded with variations of the argument that a longer running time yields greater return on their personal investment than a shorter one. This is the kind of logic that mistakes size for quality: the bigger the meal the better it tastes. Verax is the film equivalent of the opposite, a reminder about economies of storytelling and the value of size determined by content.