Bridge of Spies

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Charman; Joel Coen; Ethan Coen

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

The Red Scare may be long since over but in Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature (!) we’re thrown right back into the thick of it as Tom Hanks is tapped to negotiate the swapping of two major (human) pawns caught in a protracted and ugly chess match of intel gathering, fear mongering and society dividing.

Bridge of Spies, the collaborative effort of almost too many Academy Award winners (is there such a thing?) — directed by Spielberg, brought to life by Hanks and penned by the Coens in conjunction with relative unknown Matt Charman — has all the makings of another Spielberg classic. While it certainly does no harm to anyone’s reputation — to state the obvious, this is a thoroughly enjoyable picture — it falls just shy of greatness. Then again, that’s a bar set so high it becomes paradoxical: not even Spielberg can top Spielberg at his finest.

In 1957 Brooklyn, suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested at his apartment and taken into custody. The American public, having been rattled by the recent Rosenberg conspiracy in which an American husband and wife had been found guilty of selling secrets to the USSR about the Americans’ development of an atomic bomb, demands Abel be sentenced to death. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is called upon to represent Abel for reasons that are still bewildering to this critic. I suppose it’s enough that Donovan’s firm knows how seriously he is committed to his duties, or maybe it’s because everyone else who was asked said no. It’s not exactly clear either way, though fortunately his meteoric rise to national prominence isn’t clumsily handled.

Of course no one, not even Donovan’s family — most notably his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) — expects Donovan to seek Abel’s acquittal; the assumption is Donovan would facilitate a fair trial as a kind of courtesy to the currently most-hated man in the country. The atmosphere is such that Abel’s fate is all but a foregone conclusion, yet Donovan seeks a lighter sentence, a 30 year stretch in prison, which would all but ensure Abel’s death anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of the Supreme Court after trying to argue evidence gathered against the Soviet (whom Donovan has curiously been sympathetic to from day one) has been tainted by an invalid search warrant. He loses the case, 5-4.

Meanwhile, an American pilot by the name of Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) has been shot down over Russian soil while on a reconnaissance mission, captured, convicted and imprisoned by a somehow less empathetic government who subjects him to torture as they similarly assume him to be a spy. Following his perhaps predictable defeat, Donovan is asked to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange for Abel, putting him at even greater odds with his fellow Americans. To further complicate matters, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American graduate student studying German economics in East Germany, is captured when he finds himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

As we shift into the middle third of the film the environment becomes decidedly more chilly, and tension begins to build in earnest. What was supposed to be a simple, though by no means easy, exchange of one American for one Soviet, devolves into a circus of lies and misdirection, with Donovan receiving none of the hospitality overseas that he extended to Abel back home. It’s against a backdrop of post-World War II devastation and the bitter European winter our embattled lawyer has to have the toughest conversations yet. After much deliberation and with his patience wearing thin, he bluntly tells Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), Donovan’s German equivalent, there will be no deal between the U.S. and the Soviets if they can’t negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor for Abel. If there’s anything to be gained from such a hugely risky request, it’s our appreciation for why he is the man for this job — I don’t even think Hanks, the person, is quite this principled.

To reiterate, Spies isn’t vintage Spielberg and because it isn’t, it’s all too easy to dismiss as a minor entry. There’s nothing minor about a private citizen brokering this historic deal, though. There’s nothing forgettable about the way the Coens and Charman manage to create a clear dichotomy between Russian and American sentiments, even if the Coens have to censor themselves more than usual here. Spies could have been a truly dark picture, yet it understands that often violence is more potent when suggested rather than demonstrated. That’s not to say the film isn’t a sobering reminder of the state of the world in the late ’40s through the ’50s. The rampant paranoia is best captured in an early scene in which Donovan’s school-aged son is preparing for the inevitable dropping of the atomic bomb, while struggling to understand why his father is trying to protect “one of them.”

As per usual, the Spielbergian approach encompasses several different genres — historical drama, loosely-defined biopic, espionage thriller — and it’s compelling in each capacity, combining historical elements while exploring the many layers that make human beings what they are, regardless of nationality. Once more he delivers a wholesome product that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. It’s a quietly powerful picture and one well worth visiting.

Recommendation: Reliably strong work from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg makes Bridge of Spies an unexpectedly warm and enjoyable outing. Though not quite top-shelf stuff, this Cold War-set thriller should please fans of either camp and American/European history buffs. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming (maybe it’s more of a disappointment than a flat-out failure) is that the Coen brothers’ signature quirky, dark humor gets lost in the shuffle here. There’s comedy to be found, sure, but this doesn’t really feel like a product of their writing. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “The next mistake our governments make could be the last one.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Fury

fury-poster

Release: Friday, October 17, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: David Ayer

Directed by: David Ayer

There’s no such thing as a politically-neutral war film. That’s why David Ayer (End of Watch; Sabotage) should be praised for focusing not on the ideals and goals of war but rather its consequences. In his film there is a whole lot of loss and not a great coalition for reason. Few times before have camera angles remained so calm while also telling a thousand tales of the brutal atrocities of these violent outbursts in human history.

Death, destruction and psychological damage are bigger players in this hellish game than Brad Pitt could ever be. And this, it ought to be mentioned, is Brad Pitt operating at the top of his. There’s an almost journalistic approach taken by a director who has become comfortable with painting morally bankrupting scenes with the transparent brush of objective reality. Seeing a body being squashed by a platoon of tanks as they roll on down the road into the heart of Nazi Germany is just a fact of Fury. If we’re facing facts, we have to acknowledge there was a hand sticking out of the mud, that those weren’t just clothes being soiled and destroyed.

On the other hand, Fury is actually ironic when debating the merits of its Hollywood components. Brad Pitt is pretty. War is anything but. Make no mistake, though: as Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier, he’s the identifiable head of a body of strong-willed men who have been fighting the good fight for far too long. The film picks up on the defensive, as a very specific Sherman tank, affectionately labeled ‘Fury,’ is escaping intense aerial attacks after sitting like a duck amongst wreckage that doesn’t look too far removed from what we might imagine physical Hell to look like. It is 1945, a month before the official surrender of Nazi troops and at a time when Hitler was never more desperate. Opening title cards set the scene, and Ayer swings in with cameras immediately thrusting us onto the front lines.

German men, women and children are all armed and treated equally: they’re dispatched dispassionately by Collier’s men and then some. Collier is immediately backed by a ragtag group of good-old boys (plus a Mexican). We have Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Peña) as the primary tank driver; Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal) as a loudmouthed sumbitch; and the film’s biggest surprise in Shia LeBeouf’s man of faith, Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan.

A film is almost always automatically bolstered by performers showing up to perform their duties, and that’s precisely what happens here. There isn’t a false note in any performance, and these aren’t exactly what you’d describe as easy or predictable characters. They are characters we have seen before, true, but they operate under virtually impossible circumstances, and with each passing day the odds stack up exponentially against them.

Fury is primarily concerned with showcasing the fortitude and gung-ho spirit of this unit as they face some of the heaviest opposition relative to the second Great War, patrolling muddied, pot-hole-filled country lanes and tiny ramshackle towns that otherwise would be quaint were it not for the hostility. It commands attention via an easy to follow, simple story that shadows this tank until it runs out of luck (and ammo). What begins as a platoon of at least five Shermans is whittled down to just one as the superior firepower and construction design (though to a lesser extent) of the German tanks prove to be too much for the Allied Forces.

Adding to the chaos is a fresh-faced 18(ish)-year-old typist, a Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who has been transferred to the Fury squad. Perhaps if there’s anything outstandingly cliché about this film it’s the hard time the preexisting members give the newcomer as he joins their ranks. Understandably, the kid is instantly overwhelmed and can’t face the reality of having to kill people on a daily basis. A great deal of the emotional heft exists as a result of the tension between an idealistic young lad who sees no good coming of harming Germans who have surrendered, and an experienced vet in Wardaddy who is concerned the newbie might get them all killed if he doesn’t toughen up.

Ayer pumps his film full of pain, rage, profound sadness. Cinematic liberties can be found every where you turn and you won’t have to look hard to find them, but buried deep within this familiar tale of fighting against impossible odds is a deeply disturbing, revolting truth. Men are not monsters before war. Men aren’t even monsters afterwards. But war is just another thing men are capable of. And the unrelentingly bleak Fury is, apparently, something that David Ayer and his fantastic company are capable of.

fury-2

4-5Recommendation: Grim and gory, Fury is undoubtedly a large-scale war film but the focus is much more personal than that. Ultimately this is about the individual efforts that helped shape the Allied Powers’ remarkable surge against a German army hell-bent on taking over the world. Ayer does an incredible job of setting atmosphere, elevating tension constantly and producing characters we can truly root for. I can’t imagine a single reason any fan of war films would be missing out on this one. That said, this isn’t one for the squeamish.

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Ideas are peaceful. History is violent.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

A Most Wanted Man

MV5BODY2MTA0MjYzMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTE3NzE4MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_

Release: Friday, July 25, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

As all good things must, even A Most Wanted Man comes to an end.

And it’s going to take everything in my power to remain on the conservative side here, what with a possible capstone performance to mark the end of a career as towering as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. Trust me when I say experiencing the final moments of this film is no easy task; that is, if you hold any empathy for the troubled man at all. That’s not to say we won’t be seeing him around in other things, of course. He’ll reprise his role for The Mockingjay: Part 1 this November, and he’s also turned up in the lesser-known 2014 drama God’s Pocket.

But in A Most Wanted Man, here’s where we are obliged to bid adieu to that more significant part of a once-in-a-generation performer. The celluloid here acts as a time capsule, in which Hoffman seems permanently encased. Selfish for us to try, sure, but it’s such a great performance there’s no way we can let this be over. Eventually we’ll have to.

In a somewhat befittingly stressful turn as Günter Bachmann, the leader of a secretive intelligence operation based out of Hamburg, Germany, Hoffman becomes involved in the (mis)handling of a young half-Chechen, half-Russian illegal immigrant named Issa Karpov (an incredible Grigoriy Dobrygin) who’s fleeing from torture and persecution in both his home countries. Bachmann’s methods are not attuned to those maintained by his peers, particularly the snaky Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) and his office’s roughneck tactics, and Bachmann holds a particular disdain for the Americans given a situation in the recent past. Pale, disheveled and with a cigarette permanently glued to his lips, Günter is the perfect enigma for Hoffman to decipher.

That the film does not become a sideshow to the real-life tragedy involving one of its cast members is almost miraculous. This will be the last of Hoffman’s lead roles, and while proximate his death, his work still remains relatively unaffected. He does, however, look physically exhausted in a number of scenes. But rather than directly confronting us with his sickly appearance, the film uses it for context, making great use of Hoffman’s tired expressions and measured delivery to express an epic character. His physique immediately conjures a lifetime of struggles.

In Anton Corbijn’s film, perspective taints objective reality. We spend our time with this rag-tag group of German intelligence operatives (whose casting includes the likes of Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss) but does this mean this is the right side of the tracks to be on? Who really ought to be dealing with this suspected terrorist? Is that precisely what Issa is, a terrorist? What could have become an overwhelmingly complex and dense narrative instead is surprisingly simplified without cutting out critical details — the scarring on Issa’s back is very telling of a dark history and helps cement his nightmarish reality.

Highly compelling material adapted from the novel by John le Carré is distributed evenly and effectively across the film’s myriad talented stars. Willem Dafoe steps in as Tommy Brue, the head of a German bank which may contain funds to be inherited by Issa from his father, a man he claims to have raped his mother in front of him when he was much younger, and when Mother was a mere 15 years old. (Again, despite the crowd-pleasing flavor of the thrill, one thing A Most Wanted Man can’t be accused of is glossing over pertinent stuff.) Robin Wright matches her intensity in House of Cards and continues to affirm her spot in the upper echelons of great thespians with a spectacular performance as CIA Agent Martha Sullivan, who comes to Günter’s assistance when he needs it least. Or so he has determined.

A Wanted Man is a fiercely accurate rendering of real-world events unfolding in a period as hectic as the last ten years have been, both in the Middle East and on a global scale. A fictitious account of one man’s journey through bureaucracy in a desperate investigation into what his real identity is — is he terrorist blood or an innocent civilian trying to escape oppression? — here’s a story that at least demands an open mind.

While we revere this strange German’s effectiveness at his duties, it is safe to say we revere the man behind the man more. If all good things have to come to an end, Hoffman’s story has come to a very good ending indeed. He is hands-down the reason to watch this film, and in a masterpiece such as this, that’s relatively high praise.

amwm-2

4-0Recommendation: One of the very best films of the year, not just as a genre film or from a performance-standpoint, A Most Wanted Man is an excellent way to spend $10. For the Philip Seymour Hoffman fans (of which I believe there are at least one or two), for the Robin Wright fans, for fans of excellent adaptations of books (supposedly. . .I would now like to read this book). For anyone wanting relevance to the ongoing ideological struggles amongst the myriad countries ensnared in violent turmoil in the Middle East currently, and between them and a United States government that insists on making everything its business, you are compelled. . .nay, required to watch this film. It is that good.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “We find them. When they’re ours, we direct them at bigger targets. It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com