SNOWDEN – Craig Armstrong
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Director Oliver Stone has been making films about American politics for more than 30 years, ruminating on the events and repercussions of American wars (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven & Earth), looking at the lives of Presidents (Nixon, JFK, W.), or exposing significant events in recent US history (World Trade Center). His most recent film falls into that latter category, and revolves around the life of Edward Snowden, a brilliant computer scientist who worked for the CIA and the NSA until 2013, when he leaked classified information to the Guardian newspaper about the extent of the US government’s numerous global surveillance programs. Opinion about Snowden remains polarized. Some consider him to be a hero and a patriot, whose disclosures about the US’s use of mass surveillance on its own citizens rightfully bring to light the issues of government transparency and an individual’s right to privacy; others consider him to be a criminal and a traitor, whose illegal actions jeopardized national security and put lives at risk. This smart, timely film stars Joseph Gordon Levitt as Snowden, and has a strong supporting cast of character actors including Shailene Woodley, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, and Nicolas Cage.
While many people rightly focus on Stone’s regular exposes of American political culture, one aspect of his films that too often goes overlooked are the quality of their scores. Stone has employed many of film music’s greatest composers to score his films, including Georges Delerue on Salvador and Platoon, John Williams on Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Nixon, Ennio Morricone on U-Turn, and Vangelis on Alexander. Recently, Stone’s composer of choice has been Scotsman Craig Armstrong; Snowden is their fourth collaboration together, after World Trade Center, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and the TV series The Untold History of the United States, and for my money is their best work together yet. Having said that, however, I may be damning it with a little faint praise, because Snowden still has some problems, not least of which is a streak of predictability. Armstrong has always had a bit of a reputation as an innovator – you don’t contribute to the music of films like William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Plunkett & Macleane, Moulin Rouge, and The Great Gatsby without thinking outside the box – but Snowden sounds exactly like you would expect it to sound, and while the music itself is perfectly serviceable, it nevertheless stays well within its own comfort zone.
Armstrong’s approach to the score is basically two-pronged. The first stylistic approach is to address the character of Edward Snowden himself, who Stone is clearly portraying as positively as he can. Armstrong’s music for Snowden the man is warm, patriotic, and bathed in a subtle wash of beatific Americana, leaving you in no doubt as to Stone’s personal view of the whistleblower’s actions. In cues such as “Burden of Truth,” “Ed Reassigned,” and “Hunting Speech,” Armstrong uses slow, calming strings augmented by a subtle choir and faint electronic accents, and develops a recurring 2-note motif to act as a musical identity for Snowden himself. It’s more textural than identifiably thematic, but it paints a broad brush over Snowden’s character, characterizing him as being a generally honorable man whose actions have subsequently given him a sense of damaged patriotism. There is perhaps a very subtle hint of Alan Silvestri in the chord progressions – I’m thinking scores like Contact or Cast Away – but the similarities are superficial, and merely intended to be a frame of reference.
Other cues that embrace a more prominent orchestral sound include “Troops March,” which is strident and militaristic, but tempered with noble horn writing; “American Hymn,” which is lovely, adopts a respectful tone, and grows to an emotional finale; and “Kiss,” a short but pretty love theme for romantic pianos and dreamy synths, which is expanded upon further in the subsequent “Hawaii Guitar Theme”.
The “Happiness Montage” contains the score’s most pretty, light, flowery piano and string writing, clearly representing the enduring relationship between Snowden and his long-suffering girlfriend Lindsay. Here, Armstrong adopts the same sort of upbeat verve as he did on some of his romantic comedy/drama scores – Love Actually, or In Time, or Me Before You – which is as surprising as it is welcome. In the conclusive cue, “Snowden – Moscow Variation,’ the contrapuntal application of the slow, noble Snowden theme against the Happiness theme (transposed from piano to strings) is superb, illustrating their resolve and determination, and the strength of their relationship, with a more strident orchestral sound and forthright clattering percussion.
The second stylistic approach addresses the notion of contemporary governmental technology, and the way in which it impacts the lives of ordinary individuals on a daily basis all over the world. For these cues, Armstrong collaborated with German experimental electronic musician Antye Greie and adopted a much more aggressive synthetic tonal palette filled with extended periods of ambience. Cues like “Snowden Symphonic,” “Static,” “Messed Up,” “HK Hotel,” “Data Card,” “Realization,” and “Marwan Intel” adopt this style wholeheartedly, presenting cue after cue of hypnotic textures, pulses, electronic beats, and drones.
It is in these cues where the score begins to suffer somewhat because, although I understand the notion of underscoring espionage and subterfuge and technological machinations with synthetic textures, the music itself is unfortunately not especially interesting. Perhaps they are intended to be a reflection of the surprising ordinariness of Snowden’s day-to-day life as a top-level NSA analyst, but for me many of these cues tend to be repetitive to the point of redundancy, offering very little in the way of stimulating music. “Data Card” does contain a pulse idea reminiscent of Vangelis’s Chariots of Fire which is briefly interesting; however, on the other hand, both “Realization and “Marwan Intel” employ machinery noises, and grating, crackling electronic distortions like a fax machine or an old dial-up tone, which are more irritating than anything else.
A secondary ‘technology’ idea seems to emerge from the scenes of Snowden actually copying files and physically smuggling data out of the high security locations where he works. Here, in cues such as “Opening – Secret Downloading,” “First Copy,” and the penultimate “Ed Copies Data,” Armstrong augments his pulsating textures and rhythmic ideas with light, high electronic tones and a string wash backing that is more musically compelling. In fact, that latter cue is for me the best of the electronically enhanced cues in the score, more than six minutes of nervous, breathless, nail-biting tension which grows to become more tuneful with the addition of a whining synth chord that has more than a hint of 1990s Zimmer about it – perhaps like Broken Arrow without the guitars.
All this is fine and dandy, and enjoyable enough, but as I said before it’s all very predictable. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to score Snowden himself with warm horns and patriotic strings, and to score the technological aspect with colder electronic textures, and it’s this lack of ambition that makes Snowden seem a little less than it could otherwise have been. Furthermore, I can certainly foresee a number of people criticizing the overall lack of strong melodic content, and the score’s over-reliance on chugging ostinatos, pulses, and simple chords to drive the music. Unfortunately, this is yet another example of the film music world we are living in today, and we have to simply acknowledge that we’re a light year away from where we were when John Williams could write something like Born on the Fourth of July, or Kitaro could write something like Heaven & Earth. ‘Serviceable’ and ‘appropriate’ are two terms that one could apply to this score; unfortunately, ‘inspired’ and ‘memorable’ are not.
A note about the soundtrack situation: this is a review of the Orchestral Score album, which contains only music by Craig Armstrong, and is available exclusively as a digital-only album from Deutsche Grammophon; there is no physical CD. However, there is also a Snowden Original Motion Picture Soundtrack album – both CD and download – which contains a total of 14 tracks, six by Armstrong, and seven by composer Adam Peters, who scored Oliver Stone’s last film Savages in 2012. I’m not sure whether Peters was brought in at the last minute to replace some of Armstrong’s score, or whether they worked together, but the whole thing is quite confusing. There is music by Peters that is in the film and on the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, but is not on the Orchestral Score album, and there is music by Armstrong that is in the film and on the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, but is not on the Orchestral Score album either, and vice versa. My recommendation – if you feel so inclined – is to get both albums, delete the few duplicate tracks, and make one combined playlist to properly experience the full extent of the music as heard in the film
Buy the Snowden soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- ORCHESTRAL SCORE ALBUM – CRAIG ARMSTRONG ONLY
- Snowden – Symphonic (3:29)
- Burden of Truth (2:04)
- Opening – Secret Downloading (1:39)
- Troops March (1:57)
- Static (5:48)
- American Hymn (2:32)
- Snowden Escapes Hotel (1:31)
- Kiss (0:45)
- The Hill (0:57)
- First Copy (0:50)
- Ticket to the Top (1:02)
- Hawaii Guitar Theme (1:04)
- Messed Up (1:32)
- HK Hotel (1:27)
- Happiness Montage (1:37)
- Burden of Truth (2:01)
- Travel Montage (2:06)
- Data Card (1:43)
- Ed Reassigned (2:26)
- Realisation (1:30)
- Hunting Speech (2:49)
- Running Out of Time (2:56)
- Marwan Intel (3:05)
- Ed Copies Data (6:21)
- Snowden – Moscow Variation (3:39)
- ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK –ARMSTRONG AND PETERS
- Hotel Mira (3:01)
- Whatever Happened to Paradise? (2:19)
- Burden of Truth (2:04)
- SD Cards (2:39)
- Hawaii Guitar Theme (1:04)
- Running Out of Time (2:23)
- After All, Three Hops to Anyone (2:19)
- Happiness Montage (1:39)
- Ed Copies Data (Secret Downloading Variation) (6:22)
- Telling Lindsay (3:46)
- Download to Rubik (4:32)
- Secret Downloading (Boys Noize Remix 2) (4:10)
- Ed is on TV (2:28)
- Snowden – Moscow Variation (3:39)
Running Time: 56 minutes 51 seconds
Deutsche Grammophon (2016)
Music composed by Craig Armstrong. Conducted by Cecilia Weston. Performed by The London Sinfionetta and Metro Voices. Orchestrations by Dave Foster. Additional music by Adam Peters, Steve Davis, David Donaldson and Antye Greie. Featured musical soloists Craig Armstrong and Steve Jones. Recorded and mixed by Andy Bradfield and Jason La Rocca. Edited by Katherine Miller. Album produced by Craig Armstrong.