‘Nightingale’ Charts a Veteran’s Descent Into Madness
HBO’s newest film is a dirge for the forgotten
We all know somebody like him.
He’s probably someone you met in school or at work. You could tell right away that something was a little off. He was clingy, desperate, sad … and a little scary. He just needed a friend, someone to talk to, someone to hang out with and he settled on you.
You felt bad, you really did, so you took a few calls and tried to hang out once or twice. But something about his insistent need turned you off and you just couldn’t handle it. So you stopped answering the phone.
Nightingale — a new film playing on HBO this month — is about that guy. It’s about his pain.
David Oyelowo stars as Peter Snowden, a lonely veteran, living at home with his mother. It’s obvious from the opening moments of Nightingale that she dominates his life. Snowden works a dead end job, fights his matriarch and posts videos to the Internet in a desperate bid for a human connection.
The plot — such as it is — centers around Snowden’s obsession with an old Army buddy, Edward, and his attempts to get the guy over for dinner. But Snowden’s mother won’t let him have guests, and Edward’s wife won’t let Snowden talk to her husband.
Nightingale opens with a crime. Snowden, covered in blood, has just killed his domineering mother. He explains what happened to his webcam, to the Internet — and to the only community that will take him. He sighs, shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head and says, “I can’t post this.”
With his mother gone, Snowden is free. Free to have Edward over for dinner, free to smoke in the house and free to fall into madness.
This is a one-man show. It’s just Oyelowo alone in a house, talking to the Internet and making desperate phone calls. It’s a harrowing film, one that speaks to the cultivated loneliness of the Internet era in general and the quiet trauma of the war veteran in particular.
I’m friends with a lot of veterans and they all have a story about someone like Snowden. A guy that tried too hard to be everyone’s friend and tried, sometimes pathetically, to stay friends with everybody after they got out of the military.
Many — though not all — soldiers have support networks back home. They have lives waiting for them when their tours finish. People like Snowden don’t. They only thing waiting for them at home is pain, loneliness and suffering.
After he kills his mother, Snowden reaches out to his old army buddy. “There’s been a change in my circumstances,” he explains over the phone.
He wants to cook Edward dinner, reminisce about old times and try to reestablish the connection he felt almost 20 years ago when both men were just scared boys with shaved heads.
But this story is all from Snowden’s perspective, and the nature of that old friendship is in question. My veteran friends have stories about guys like Snowden. They all go out of their way to avoid talking to them.
The power of Nightingale is in its performance and writing. Oyelowo is brilliant. At one point, he buys an iPhone. When he comes home, he places the box on the counter and opens it with reverence. There’s no dialogue, but you can tell that it’s the most expensive thing he’s ever purchased and that his mother would never have allowed him such a luxury.
Another moving moment comes later in the film, when Snowden is moving through outfits trying to decide what to wear for when his friend comes over for dinner. He tries on his dress greens and smiles. It’s one of the few rare moments of happiness Snowden has in a long movie filled with his suffering. In his greens, he remembers a better time when he had friends and a purpose.
This film is about the slow unwinding of a war veteran as he sits in an old house with the corpse of the mother he murdered. Reading the setup, it’s hard to imagine the audience feeling sympathy for Snowden.
But screenwriter Frederick Mensch’s lines have a poignant sadness, and Oyelowo’s performance is so tragic and full of suffering that it’s hard not to root for Snowden the killer. His webcam monologues for his online followers are moving.
It’s in these moments that he reveals his true self. He becomes a character, but that character feels more grounded than his offline persona. He’s a man searching for a connection and the only one he can find is online with a parade of anonymous viewers who support and criticize in equal measure.
While watching the movie, I kept thinking about Sebastian Junger’s recent article for Vanity Fair about post-traumatic stress disorder. “Being in a war zone with your platoon feels safer than being in an American suburb by yourself,” Junger wrote.
Nightingale is a stark portrait of those old soldiers — those who can’t quite bury the past and for whom life in suburbia is a slow and noxious death.
It’s playing on HBO this month, and streaming on HBO Go. Please watch it. And maybe pick up the phone the next time your Snowden calls.