The Catcher Was a Spy


Fog and espionage go together like pitchers and catchers.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFC) Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Connie Nielsen, Shea Whigham, John Schwab, Hiroyuki Sanada, Giancarlo Giannini, Pierfrancesco Favino, Anna Geislerová, Bobby Schofield, Demetri Goritsas, William Hope, Milan Aulicky, Jordan Long, James McVan, Ben Miles, Agnese Nano. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

Doing a biography of a real individual is a difficult undertaking. It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of the subject in just a ninety-minute movie; real lives don’t always condense well. Sometimes, though, you get a subject who has so little known about them that ninety minutes seems too many.

Moe Berg (Rudd) was such a man. A journeyman catcher for five Major League ballclubs, he is depicted here near the end of his career with the Red Sox, being urged by his manager Joe Cronin (Whigham) to hang up his spikes and take up a coaching position. His teammates and contemporaries bestowed on him the nickname “The Professor” because of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and his success on radio quiz shows.

But Berg had a destiny beyond the ballpark; fluent in seven languages, he was recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan (Daniels) of the OSS – which would eventually become the CIA – to work initially as an analyst but eventually was sent out into the field to determine how close the Nazis were to developing an atomic bomb of their own and if they were close, to kill the lead German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Strong).

The film has a good number of atmospheric visuals, terrific production values that really bring forth the era and a stellar cast. All this combines to give the film a real noir feel which is a good thing. What it doesn’t have is a sense of urgency or of peril; the atomic race between the United States and Nazi Germany was essentially a struggle to the death for both nations. We never get that sense of suspense which would have been made the movie a lot more watchable; it feels more like an intellectual exercise.

Not all of that is the fault of the filmmakers. In real life Morris Berg was a private man to the point that it was nearly impossible to get to know him. He remains today as mysterious as he was in life. The movie brings up the rumor that the book this was based on did; that Berg was a closeted homosexual but there’s no valid evidence that proves or disproves it so rather than having the courage of its convictions, the film kind of wimps out on it. They do show him having a vigorous physical relationship with his girlfriend Estella (Miller) but even she found him a distant cold fish.

It’s hard for an audience to get behind a character like that and the normally very likable Rudd does his very best but in the end he becomes a bit standoffish and flat and the film kind of follows that lead. Berg is a fascinating character who deserves to have his story told but I sort of doubt it ever will be; the man was much too private for that to occur.

REASONS TO SEE: The strong cast gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Berg deserves a better movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, language and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The baseball sequences were filmed at Fenway Park in Boston.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Showtime Anytime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Behind Home Plate
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Do It Yourself

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Red Joan


The spy who knitted tea cozies.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFCJudi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles, Robin Soans, Kevin Fuller, Stephen Boxer, Simon Ludders, Steven Hillman, Ciarán Owens, Phil Langhorne, Stuart Whelan, Freddie Gaminara, Stephen Samson, Paul Kerry, Adrian Wheeler, Lulu Meissner. Directed by Trevor Nunn

Ah, the things we do for love. Sometimes we are moved to do things because of conscience but how many times have we done things we ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t do out of love? Most of us can ruefully admit to at least a small list.

Pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench), an octogenarian living in suburban London, spends most of her days fixing herself tea and working in her garden, weather permitting. Her son Patrick (Spellman), a busy lawyer and politician, rarely has time to visit her anymore so when there’s a knock on her door, she’s taken aback. However, it’s not a social visit; it’s MI-5, putting her under arrest for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Most of the rest of the film proceeds in flashbacks. While a University student, Joan (Cookson) had fallen under the spell of glamorous immigrant Sonya (Srbova) and even more so of Sonya’s smoldering, brooding cousin Leo (Hughes), a not-so-closet communist party member in the 1930s when the Reds were viewed with some distrust at the very least. It isn’t long before the naïve and mousy Joan is in Leo’s bed.

When the Second World War erupts and the Soviet Union becomes our ally, Joan is drafted into an atomic research team headed by Professor Max Davis (Moore). Although Joan is used as little more than a glorified secretary, she is in fact a brilliant physicist whom Max comes to rely on as a problem solver and eventually, on a much more personal level.

When the Americans drop the A-bomb onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joan who knows better than most the consequences of such an act is absolutely horrified. She comes to the realization that these terrible World Wars will continue unless both sides have access to these terrible weapons. When Leo and Sonya come knocking on her door, she is more than willing to answer.

Although (very loosely) based on actual events, this film doesn’t have the air of authenticity that something based on reality has. Far from being a John LeCarre-like spy thriller which I believe it aspires to be, this is more like a soap opera that out of one side of its face decries the marginalization of women and on the other side has them as simple-headed sops who do mad, impetuous things out of love or maybe just lust. Apparently even feminists can be fools for love.

If that sounds a bit catty, it can be forgiven; there’s a hell of a story to be told here and Nunn and company squander it. Worse still, there are some terrific performances by Dench and Cookson that are essentially wasted. Also, let the viewer beware – although Dench is top-lined here, she is limited to a meager amount of screen time; Cookson gets the lion’s share of that.

While there are some terrific moments – young Joan’s confession to Max, Patrick’s repudiation of his mother – that are worth waiting for, for the most part the movie maddeningly doesn’t let us inside the head of Joan. She does things seemingly on whim. She’s not much of a spy; she gets by mainly because, as Sonya wryly puts it, no men would think a woman capable of such deception plus there’s more than a smattering of dumb luck and Joan’s pals willing to take the blame for Joan’s actions.

This isn’t a spy saga as I’ve said; it’s more of a melodrama and a fairly rote one at that. Given the superior cast and the remarkable true story that inspired it, this movie could have been so much more. However, I can’t review that movie, only the ones that Nunn and his colleagues have given us and it’s frankly not one that rises far above mediocrity.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench always delivers the goods. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit soapy and/or syrupy in places. Lots of potential here but ultimately the film doesn’t deliver.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie, as the novel that inspired it, was based on the real life case of Melita Norwood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Master Maggie

The Cyclotron (Le Cyclotron)


Class dismissed.

(2016) Thriller (108 Media) Mark Antony Krupa, Lucille Fluet, Paul Ahmarani, Olivier Barrette, Manuel Sinor, Benoit Mauffette. Directed by Olivier Asselin

 

Although it may be hard to believe now, the Allies came within a hairs’ breadth of losing the Second World War. The Nazis were well on their way to developing their own atomic weapon; the Allies were able to defeat them before they could complete their work but what if we hadn’t?

A train hurtles into the night, headed for Switzerland from Germany. Emil Scherer (Krupa), a top German physicist is aboard it. He is AWOL from his work at the German version of the Manhattan Project and a fellow scientist named Helmut König (Ahmarani) has been dispatched to fetch him, find out whether he has taken any atomic secrets with him and whether he intends to defect.

Also on his trail is Simone Ziegler (Fluet), a French-German scientist who once worked alongside Scherer and was also romantically involved with him. She works now with the resistance and has been sent to find Scherer and if necessary, eliminate him. Since she finds him first, she talks to him and discovers that he has already discovered a way to make a bomb – one that fits in a wristwatch. Worse still, he has already constructed one and is wearing it. He hopes to hand it over to the Allies but with the German sniffing at their heels and the train still far from the Swiss border, getting out alive may not be an option. It will take an act of desperation which will lead to the war’s outcome balancing on the tip of the tail of a cat belonging to a fellow named Schrödinger.

Sometimes I have a problem with Hollywood films with bloated budgets that are too dazzling; this is the reverse. This is a movie that I wish could be remade with a much more ambitious budget. This is as well-written a script as you’re likely to see onscreen this year. Asselin, who co-wrote the script with Fluet, gives the main characters plenty of depth and keeps the tension high throughout. The game of cat and mouse between spies and Nazis is delicately played unlike the usual sledgehammers we get when less skillful hands try to do a movie in the film noir style.

There is plenty of atmosphere in the film and plenty of different styles to enrich it including some German Expressionism which I found delightful. It really helps establish the era as well as the mood. Fluet and Asselin don’t clutter up the film too much with technical jargon, although there are some explorations of quantum mechanics as well as Schrödinger’s Cat which is a theory which, to put in an extremely simplistic manner, posits that a cat is put in a box without air holes and left there for a certain period of time. There’s no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or dead until one opens the box; until that is done the cat is both alive and dead within the box. It’s fairly heady stuff but it makes more sense when you see it used within the film and I have to admit, I’ve never seen it used as well cinematically.

The black and white also helps the tone of the film, but that may not necessarily be why the filmmakers used it – there are several scenes that are shot in color in what seems like random bursts although that’s probably not the case. No, I suspect black and white was used to hide the fact that since the bulk of the action takes place aboard a train and they didn’t have access to one, they inserted shots of digital trains hurtling down a variety of train tracks. The CGI is absolutely shoddy and unacceptable; every time you see the train onscreen you’re taken out of the spell of the film that the director and cast has worked so hard to build. The score is also somewhat overbearing and sounds like it was cobbled together from a bunch of better noir films.

There is some real promise here. The actors do solid jobs and Fluet and Krupa even manage to generate some romantic heat between their characters. The movie fails more on the technical end rather than on the creative one. I would like to see this remade with actual trains rather than digital ones and a little bit more of an effects budget, particularly for the movie’s end. In any case while the execution was a victim of its ambition and lack of cash, this is nonetheless worth checking out if you’re willing to overlook the flaws here.

REASONS TO GO: Asselin does a marvelous job of keeping the tension high. Schrödinger’s Cat may be used to better advantage here than by any other movie in history.
REASONS TO STAY: The computer graphics are amateurish and distracting. The score is overwrought and distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene with some gore early on, some sensuality and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at the 2016 Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia where it won Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Night Train
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Elian

Allied


The name is Pitt, Brad Pitt.

The name is Pitt, Brad Pitt.

(2016) War Drama (Paramount) Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, Simon McBurney, Matthew Goode, Marion Bailey, Ian Batchelor, Ėric Thëobald, Josh Dylan, Camille Cottin, August Diehl, Anton Blake, Fleur Poad, Vincent Latorre, Daniel Betts, Sally Messham, Charlotte Hope, Celeste Dodwell, Maggie O’Brien, Anton Lesser, Angelique Joan. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Espionage is a lonely affair. After all, how can you trust anyone who it is a given that they are at the very least manipulating the truth if not outright lying? Relationships do not survive without trust, after all.

Max Vatan (Pitt) is a Canadian airman/spy who parachutes into North Africa during World War II. His assignment is to make it to Casablanca and there attend a party where he will assassinate the German ambassador (Blake). Assisting him will be Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), a member of the French resistance who will pose as his wife and get him into the party.

At first, both of them are consummate professionals, maintaining the illusion of a loving marriage while retaining their objectivity but that objectivity begins to crumble. Imminent danger turns feigned affection to the real McCoy. On the eve of the party, they go out to the desert to clear their heads but a sandstorm traps them in their car where they finally smash through their pretensions and give in to what they’ve both been feeling.

After completing their mission, they return to London and marry; shortly thereafter Marianne gives birth to a daughter in the midst of an air raid. They find a quaint cottage in Hampstead while Max is a desk jockey in the British war department. One afternoon on what is supposed to be a weekend off, he is summoned to headquarters and his superior (Harris) and a officious military intelligence officer (McBurney) drop a bombshell of their own; Marianne is in fact a German spy. She’d assumed the identity of the real Marianne Beauséjour after murdering her. They’ve intercepted transmissions of classified material that they have traced to her. Max is given false information to make sure that Marianne can discover. If that information turns up in a new transmission, then all doubt will be removed and Max is ordered to execute her by his own hand in that case. Failure to do so will result in his own execution.

Max, of course, doesn’t believe that the love of his life and the mother of his child could betray him like that. Despite orders to the contrary, he does some sleuthing of his own trying to discover the truth about his wife. Is she, as he believes, falsely accused or has she lied to him all this time and is actually using him?

To Zemeckis’ credit, he doesn’t tip his hand one way or the other. The audience is completely in the dark of Marianne’s innocence or guilt until the very end of the film. Also to his credit we care about both characters enough that we are genuinely rooting for the accusations to be false. It is also a credit to both actors that their relationship is completely believable.

What isn’t believable is the whole trope of that the accused spy, if she is a spy, must die by the hand of her husband. I suppose that the logic there is that it proves the continued loyalty of the Max character and that he isn’t an accomplice to Marianne’s alleged chicanery but it is the kind of thing that doesn’t make sense. It would seem more logical that if Marianne is guilty that anybody but Max execute her. Certainly war can change morality but it doesn’t seem to me that forcing a man to kill his wife would do anything but turn him against the agency making such an order. There are also plenty of ways to get Marianne to receive false information without involving her husband. It would be in fact more efficient to leave him ignorant. Of course that would also remove the tension of the movie’s third act.

Pitt and Cotillard are both legitimate movie stars and with all that implies; Zemeckis is a master at utilizing the abilities of the stars he works with. Pitt and Cotillard have never been as radiant and charismatic as they are here. They both captivate equally and their relationship as lovers makes absolute sense and is believable without question. The movie is essentially a primer for the advantages of star power.

What I liked most about the film was that it is very a movie that puts to lie “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” This is absolutely the way they used to make ‘em like. It is no accident that the first act is set in Casablanca; the iconic Casablanca is not only name-checked but several elements from it are slyly referenced. The costuming is absolutely superb. I don’t often notice the costumes but they are superb here; it wouldn’t surprise me if the film gets an Oscar nomination in that department. Joanna Johnston, the costume designer, certainly deserves one here.

What I didn’t like about the movie is that it runs a little bit too long particularly during the second act. Da Queen, in the interest of full disclosure, actually liked this part of the movie much more than I did; she felt that Max acted the way she thought any good husband would.  In all honesty I can’t dispute that, but again that’s why any intelligence agency would not inform the husband of an accused spy that she’s under investigation, if for no other reason that they would better be able to determine his own complicity if any in that manner.

I have to admit that I liked the movie a few days after seeing it than I did when I left the theater and it’s entirely possible that when I view this a second time (as I certainly will since Da Queen really liked the movie much more than I did) I will find myself liking it even more. That said, it did leave me a bit flat despite everything it had going for it; that could be chalked up to me not feeling well when I saw it. There are definitely some flaws here but for those who love movies the way they used to be you’re bound to find this right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: Pitt and Cotillard are legitimate movie stars who use their star appeal to full potential here. It’s an old-fashioned Hollywood movie in the best sense of the term.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long and drags a whole lot in the middle third. Some of the plot points lack credibility.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some wartime espionage violence, some sexuality, a brief scene of drug use and a slight amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In one scene, a photo of King George VI can be seen behind Jared Harris. He played the monarch in the Netflix series The Crown.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Jones
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Almost Christmas

Keeping Up with the Joneses


One must keep one's focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

One must keep one’s focus sharp when shopping for lingerie.

(2016) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt, Ming Zhao, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Michael Liu, Kevin Dunn, Dayo Abanikanda, Henry Boston, Jack McQuaid, Ying He, Yi Dong Hian, Art Shaffir, Marc Grapey, Karina Bonnefil, Darin Cooper, Angela Ray, Amy Block. Directed by Greg Mottola

 

Neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, everyone knew everyone; we all were in each others’ business. Now, we barely acknowledge each other with a nod of the head. Does anyone really know who their neighbors truly are anymore?

The Gaffneys have a good life. Jeff (Galifianakis) is an HR guy at a big defense contractor. He’s basically a good guy but he hasn’t met a problem yet that he didn’t think could be solved with an aphorism and a stress ball. His wife Karen (Fisher) is an interior designer who has put her career on hold to raise her kids. The cul-de-sac in which they live in suburban Atlanta is well-to-do and close-knit. Jeff is as happy as a clam, Karen a little less so especially now that the kids are gone for the summer. Still, it feels like something is missing in their lives, something that doesn’t appear to be coming back anytime soon – a sense of excitement.

That is, until the Jones family moves in across the street. Natalie (Gadot) is super sexy and capable, absolutely excelling at everything she does; Tim (Hamm) is a travel writer, accomplished, handsome and pretty much an authority on everything. Tim and Jeff hit it off straight away, developing quite the bro-mance. Karen is a little bit more hesitant to connect with the ice-cold Natalie, although she is a little attracted to her sexuality (who isn’t?) to be honest. In fact, perfect Natalie has her a little bit suspicious.

And, it turns out, with good reason; the Joneses are spies and they have their eye on some chicanery going on at Jeff’s place of employment. It involves a mole within the company, a vicious arms dealer known only as the Scorpion and an agency that employs the Joneses who aren’t worried about collateral damage and with the Gaffneys now involved, there’s going to be a whole lot of that.

The ordinary people drawn into extraordinary espionage situations have been popular in the movies with things like True Lies and Spy among others. They act as avatars for the audience, drawn into a world of excitement, glamour and danger. Who wouldn’t want to be a superspy, suave and debonair or beautiful and deadly?

The four leads all interact well among each other, although surprisingly the best chemistry is between Hamm and Galifianakis although considering the two have been friends for awhile offscreen, it may be less surprising than at first glance. The two develop a relationship that is realistic and the kind of friendship most men want to have with other men. The ladies are sexy and made to give each other an obligatory kiss (why is it as a society we find women kissing each other far sexier than men doing it?) but given that Karen are so suspicious of Natalie to begin with whereas the more open Jeff is accepting of Tim right away that the two ladies don’t really develop a friendship as deep as the one the men forge. Perhaps that’s meant to be a commentary on the nature of interactions between women in general. Perhaps not.

The action sequences are for the most part unremarkable and mostly played for last. There is a car chase that’s reasonably cool (given that there are four people in the car that’s being chased rather than the usual two) but again, nothing new is added to the genre here. Of course, it’s not really a requirement that every action sequence has to be innovative.

This is the kind of movie that you really have to turn your brains off for and there’s no shame in that; sometimes what we’re looking for is just pure escapism. Still, you can have escapism without sacrificing story and character development and while the actors do game work here, they are ultimately betrayed by a script that doesn’t give them a whole lot of character to hang their hats on. Maybe the Agency ought to look into that.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between the leads is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: A predictable tired plot sabotages all the best intentions of the filmmakers.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of espionage action, some rude humor, scenes of sexuality and occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  One of three major studio releases in 2016 with the name “Jones’ in the title, the other two being Bridget Jones’ Baby and Free State of Jones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. and Mrs. Smith
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Cents

Bridge of Spies


Tom Hanks meets the press.

Tom Hanks meets the press.

(2015) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Peter McRobbie, Austin Stowell, Dakin Matthews, Eve Hewson, Jesse Plemons, Scott Shepherd, Lucia Ryan, Wil Rogers, Nadja Bobyleva, Joe Forbrich, David Wilson Barnes, Mikhail Gorevoy, Steve Cirbus, Billy Magnussen, Noah Schnapp, Jillian Lebling. Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Cold War was in many ways, anything but. While the Soviet Union and the United States weren’t shooting at each other, that didn’t mean there weren’t casualties.

Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is a painter living in Brooklyn. The FBI thinks he’s a spy for the Soviet Union and they are following him, although he manages to evade their pursuit. He picks up a nickel on a park bench and discovers the coin has been hollowed out with a message left for him inside. However, eventually the FBI catches up with him and arrests him.

Eager to make a good impression on the world stage, rather than summarily executing the spy the government is keen on putting Abel on trial. They engage insurance lawyer James V. Donovan (Hanks) to represent him. At first Donovan wants nothing to do with it; he knows that representing an accused spy would bring him into a spotlight he doesn’t want he or his family to be in; he knows that people will hate him almost as much as they hate Abel but he truly believes that every man is entitled to a proper defense and decides that this is the least he can do to serve his country after having served it well in the Second World War.

He undertakes to defend Abel, advising him to cooperate with the U.S. Government but Abel refuses. Donovan grows to admire Abel for his loyalty to his cause, even if that cause is diametrically opposed to that of his country. Donovan endeavors to give Abel the most vigorous defense he can, knowing the judge (Matthews) in his case is predisposed to let Abel swing from the highest rope in the land. Donovan pleads with the judge to consider sparing Abel’s life, arguing that it would be a good thing to have Abel in hand just in case an American spy were to get captured, not to mention it would make America look merciful in the eyes of the world.

As it turns out, they were about to get a reason to keep Abel alive when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Stowell), piloting a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, is shot down and contrary to his orders captured alive (his orders was to take a cyanide pill and kill himself before getting captured). The government, knowing that Powers has knowledge of their spy plane program that they don’t want the Soviets to have, discovers that the Soviets are making overtures for a prisoner swap through the East Germans and to Donovan. CIA chief Allen Dulles (McRobbie) sends Donovan to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange. However, the Berlin Wall is being built, splitting the city in two. Tensions are high and the East Germans have captured an American student named Frederic Pryor (Rogers) who was studying economics there as a spy. Everyone knows that Pryor is no spy but now there is another element to the mix – and the Soviet and East German agendas might be entirely different.

Spielberg is a master storyteller and in many ways he’s the equivalent of Frank Capra. Hanks as I’ve mentioned before is the modern Jimmy Stewart and like Capra and Stewart, Spielberg and Hanks make as dynamic a director/actor pairing as we’ve seen in the last 20 years (with the exceptions maybe of Scorsese/Di Caprio and maybe Burton/Depp in that mix. This is the fifth time the two have been paired together and they’ve never made a bad movie.

And neither is this one. Hanks imbues Donovan with decency without making him cloying. Donovan’s faith in the Constitution resonates and once more, he’s absolutely right to. Donovan – and through him Spielberg and writers the Coen Brothers – preach that the Constitution is our roadmap to guide us through difficult situations; suspending it or ignoring it lessens us as a nation. Considering how fast and loose we’ve played with the Constitution in our War on Terror, the lesson has an extra importance especially now.

Rylance, who has won his share of Tony Awards for his work on Broadway, nearly steals the show from Hanks (a daunting task) by creating a man who is loyal to his nation, intelligent but also a human being, who grows to respect Donovan for his own loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. The real Rudolf Abel was a complicated man and Rylance conveys that.

The movie really is divided into two halves; the first part in which Donovan defends Abel which is essentially a courtroom drama, and the second in which Donovan goes to arrange the exchange which is more of a Cold War spy thriller. The first part actually works a little bit better than the second although it is in fact a bit drier in some ways; while I suspect the average moviegoer will like the second half better (the first can be slow-moving), it is the first where the meat of the message is delivered and has much more connection with me, at least.

For those who lived through the Cold War, the fear of nuclear holocaust was a real one you lived with every day. Duck and cover was a real thing. It looks quaint to modern eyes but it was the reality of the situation. People fully expected that World War III would be the last war – and that war would be inevitable. People in America really thought the Soviet Union was as evil as Nazi German. The Soviet citizenry probably thought much the same about America.

In some ways we haven’t grown much past those days. We still need an enemy to fear. We still lose our shit when someone outrages us. We still think the constitution should be suspended when it comes to terrorists, never realizing that once you go down that road that you can never go back – and that constitution that has guided us and protected us all these years becomes a little less shiny, a little less secure. The lessons from Bridge of Spies are extremely important in that regard; that they are presented in a well-crafted tale is icing on the cake.

REASONS TO GO: Spielberg and Hanks make a terrific pair. Rylance gives Oscar-worthy performance. Period of history brought ably to life.
REASONS TO STAY: Plods a little bit. Feels like two different movies…
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some brief foul language and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed on the Glienecke Bridge near the end of the film is the exact spot where the events depicted in the scene took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Too Hip for the Room

A Most Wanted Man


R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman.

R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman.

(2014) Spy Thriller (Roadside Attractions) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Mehdi Dehbi, Nina Hoss, Neil Malik Abdullah, Vicky Krieps, Kostja Ullmann, Franz Hartwig, Martin Wuttke, Rainer Bock, Derya Alabora, Tamer Yigit, Herbert Gronemeyer, Ursina Lardi Directed by Anton Corbijn

 

It is a tricky world out there, complicated and dangerous. These days, being a spy is a lot more than playing baccarat and sipping a superbly made martini and spies aren’t urbane, elegant men in formal wear. They’re more often than not rumpled, middle aged bureaucrat sorts who wouldn’t make an impression on anyone at first glance.

 

Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is such a spy. He chain smokes, drinks too much and has a pot belly not well-disguised by his ill-fitting suit. He looks like middle management for some automobile manufacturer – in fact, he is middle management but in a far different vocation. He is part of an anti-terrorist group, a small but dedicated group who monitor potential terrorist activities in Hamburg, a port city in Germany from which Mohammed Atta once organized the events of 9-11.

 

Since then, German intelligence has kept a close eye on what’s going on in the city as have their counterparts in the CIA. While Gunther’s group operates in a quasi-legal state, able to break German law with a certain amount of impunity, Dieter Mohr (Bock), the local station chief, is more of a by-the-book sort who has a bureaucrat’s soul and  the keen political sense of a born game player. Naturally he and Gunther clash repeatedly, Dieter disdaining the cowboy tactics of Gunther and Gunther less than forgiving of Dieter’s lack of field experience and political gamesmanship.

 

Into this highly volatile environment comes Issa Karpov (Dobrygin), a half-Russian half-Chechen man who has escaped Russian prison and entered Germany illegally. The Russians have branded him a terrorist, but Gunther sees him as a means to an end. He could be just what the Russians say he is, or the innocent victim of overzealous Russian hatred for Chechens in general. Gunther really doesn’t care which. He sees him as an opportunity to get to bigger fish in the pond, particularly Dr. Abdullah (Ershadi), a spokesman for Arabic charities who may actually be raising money for terrorist organizations while decrying terrorist activities publicly.

 

Karpov contacts Annabel Richter (McAdams), a lawyer who specializes in immigration issues. He needs to get in touch with banker Tommy Brue (Dafoe) for reasons that are his own. Gunther, a manipulative and sometimes cruel man, knows that he needs to make Annabel and Tommy his operatives and he will stop at nothing to do it, be it blackmail, kidnapping and intimidation, or even death threats. Whatever it takes.

But there are games within games, with a U.S. Embassy official (Wright) who may or may not be a CIA operative and who may or may not be Gunther’s ally. Gunther and his team are walking a fine line and with Mohr breathing down his neck he may not make it out of this one unscathed.

 

This is based on a recent John Le Carre novel (the acclaimed author is also a producer on the project) and like most Le Carre works, this is more of a gritty look at the world of espionage rather than the gloss and glamour of the James Bond series. Anton Corbijn, whose last film was The American which is similarly themed, is the perfect choice to sit in the director’s chair. Like the work of Le Carre, that film is complex and tense with characters whose motivations are maddeningly unclear. In other words, probably a more realistic look at the intelligence business.

This is the last leading role that Hoffman would complete before his untimely passing earlier this year and thankfully, it’s a good one. Gunther is world-weary, tired of the constant betrayal and backstabbing which on occasion has cost him the lives of his colleagues. The only people he truly trusts are on his team and one suspects, he isn’t 100% certain about them either. He is a master manipulator but he can also have his own buttons pushed. Near the end, you hear Hoffman wheezing as he breathes – whether that was an indication of the actor’s ill health or if he was capturing the out of shape frustration and passion of Gunther as things come to a head we’ll probably ever know.

McAdams is a good actress in her own right, but she is hidden behind a German accent whose authenticity varies. Dafoe and Bruhl are also fine actors but neither has a whole lot to do. Wright makes a fine foil for Hoffman, cool and terribly overbearing who clearly has little respect for Gunther and European intelligence in general.

 

In fact, this has a much more European outlook on modern espionage and intelligence. Le Carre generally had a fairly cynical outlook towards the benevolence of the CIA and often made them either incompetent or villainous in his books. There is often a moral complexity to his work which requires a lot more patience than American audiences tend to be comfortable with.

And therein lies the rub. American audiences are not tailor made for the kind of pacing and complexity that comes with the best of Le Carre’s work. There is no easy way to put it – we Americans tend to have a very finite attention span and we require stimulation nearly non-stop. That’s what years of video games will do to you.

Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme does a great job of making Hamburg a character in the movie. She’s dingy, gritty and a little bit disreputable here – we see the seedy underbelly of a town that already has a rough reputation to begin with. We get that palpable sense of danger and dissatisfaction.

I found this movie to work on a lot of levels, particularly in regards to Hoffman’s performance which has an outside shot of netting him a posthumous Oscar. Roadside Attractions, the art house arm of Lionsgate, has a few Oscar nominations to its credit so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. I found the middle of the movie to be a bit tough sledding, but nevertheless this is a fitting send off to one of the best actors of his generation who left us too soon.

REASONS TO GO: Stand-out performance  by Hoffman. Nice tension. Hamburg used as a character in the film.

REASONS TO STAY: Le Carre likes a lot of twists and turns which some moviegoers may not appreciate. Stately pacing.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the last completed film of Philip Seymour Hoffman (he also appears in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay parts one and two but his filming hadn’t been completed when he passed away).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Boyhood