Sunday, October 18, 2015

Pariahs & Patriots - Bridge of Spies, Reviewed

A movie can be the ultimate test of synergy; you can have all the right components (in theory), but if they don't work well together, you can end up with a mess.  Bruce Campbell (of Evil Dead fame), has a famous example he called 'The Greenlight Game' which he used in response to the question, "Why do you make so many bad movies?"

Bruce Campbell: Okay, you're a big Hollywood producer and I'm gonna pitch a film to you. You tell me whether you're gonna green light it and make the movie or pass.
Poor Sap: Okay!
BC: Okay! It's based on a best selling book by Michael Crichton. We've got Frank Marshall directing, we've signed Laura Linney, Dylan Walsh, Ernie Hudson, and Tim Curry to star; are you interested?
PS: Yeah!
BC: Wait, that's not all! We've got the cinematographer from "Lawrence of Arabia", Jerry Goldsmith is doing the score, and Stan Winston is doing the effects. Still interested?
PS: Yes!
BC: So you're greenlighting it? You're giving me the money to make this movie?
PS: Yeah!
BC: You're sure?
PS: Yes!!!
BC: Congratulations! You just greenlit "CONGO"!!!
With Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg collaborating for the first time in over a decade, I was already interested in their cold war potboiler Bridge of Spies, especially with both men being legitimate history junkies. Knowing that Joel and Ethan Coen had a writing credit made me even more intrigued. But some reviews claimed it was slow-paced, that there was little sense of jeopardy; could it be the Congo Effect at work once more.

I have been in a terrible headspace since learning about Mark's death, Audrey and I were several months overdue for a date night, and Cineplex is changing the way Scene points work in a couple of weeks so this was going to be our last chance to sit in VIP luxury for a mere one thousand points, so we said 'damn Congo!', took the plunge, and I am glad we did.

Tom Hanks plays Brooklyn insurance attorney Jim Donovan, selected for the questionable honor of representing Rudolph Abel, accused of espionage, in order to assure he is given adequate legal representation.  Donovan does so, at significant cost to himself and his family, but his idealism and his efforts end up giving him the legitimacy to very unofficially negotiate an exchange of Abel for captured U-2 pilot Gary Powers.

Are you going to enjoy Bridge of Spies? It is hard to say for sure, but let me list the three things you may want to have on hand to maximize your odds:

Patience - From a plot perspective, almost nothing happens throughout the entirety of the second act and into much of the third; much of the onscreen interaction is devoted to unravelling a Gordian knot involving spycraft, statecraft and stagecraft, and the payoff takes a long time to come. It is a languid style of filmmaking far more in keeping with the 1970s, but apparently no one told Spielberg that "they just don't make 'em like that any more", or if they did, he simply didn't listen.

Perspective - A friend's teenage son recently asked him, "What exactly was the Cold War, anyways?", a question he found decidedly difficult to answer from a standing start, as I imagine we all would. The cheerful and victorious veneer of glasnost and perestroika make it all to easy to forget just how different things were at the time the Berlin Wall was erected, and it still seems hard to believe. Seeing Donovan's son watching Civil Defense movies in school about how to survive a nuclear attack ("Duck and cover!") is a great way to remind those of us who lived in this time of uneasy detente, but I don't know if it will be sufficient for people who only know of U2 as an Irish rock band.

Principles - Here is the key element for me: when given the duty of representing Abel, Donovan does so to the very best of his ability, perturbing others in the justice system who are only looking for a perfunctory defense so they can get straight to the hanging with as little delay as possible. Since Abel refused to cooperate with his captors, the CIA, come to Donovan and bluntly ask if he has been told anything, and then chide him for his adherence to attorney-client privilege.

FBI Agent Hoffman: We need to know what the Russian was telling you. Don’t go all boy scout on me. We don’t have a rule book here… 
James Donovan: I’m Irish, and you’re German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing… one, only one. The rule book . We call it The Constitution, and we agree to the rules. And that’s what makes us Americans. It’s all that makes us Americans, so don’t tell me there’s no rule book…and don’t nod at me like that, you sonuvabitch…
It's a great soapbox moment for Hanks, still my generation's Jimmy Stewart, and he does it without grandstanding, but with an undercurrent of indignation that really resonated with me. Viewers who consider themselves pragmatists at heart may find themselves wondering what all the fuss is about, so there you have it.

It's a well paced, well shot (courtesy of D.P. Janusz Kaminski), bit of old-fashioned moviemaking, with some great dialogue courtesy of the Coen brothers, and a surprising amount of gently funny moments as well. It is all drama and no melodrama, and there are very few moments you can pull out with any certainty and say, "That will be the clip they show when Mark Rylance (Abel) gets his name read as a nominee at the Oscars."

Rylance and Hanks are the only actors with any foundation for an acting nod, Hanks mostly because, well, Tom Hanks.  Both men approach their roles with quiet calm, disappearing into their respective parts, anticipating more than reacting, which I think is much harder to pull off, but Hank's confidence and Rylance's stage experience carry the day here.

Likewise I think Spielberg and Kaminski can expect Directing and Cinematography nods, and probably a screenplay nomination for the Coens, and when you add that all up, you can probably expect to see Bridge of Spies listed as one of the 9-10 Best Picture nominees at the end of January.

There is a tragic undercurrent to the narrative, that three decent and loyal men, trying to do right by their countries and their ideals, run a tremendous risk at being made outcasts. Donovan gets shunned by the same executives that prompted him to take up Abel's defense, Abel is suspected of rolling over for the Americans and Gary Powers is vilified for not going down with the ship. The real story in this film is not what happens, but how it happens, and the cost to those involved for standing by their principles in order to make it happen.

I'd hate to think that this is the reason 'they don't make them like that anymore', but it makes a person wonder.  In the meantime though, Bridge of Spies is two hours well spent if you are a fan of either recent history or established values.

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