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

The Visit


There's something a little bit off about Nana.

There’s something a little bit off about Nana.

(2015) Suspense (Universal) Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deana Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Samuel Stricklen, Patch Darragh, Jorge Cordova, Steve Annan, Benjamin Kanes, Ocean James, Seamus Moroney, Brian Gildea, Richard Barlow, Dave Jia, Gabrielle Pentalow, Michelle Rose Domb, Shelby Lackman, Erica Lynne Arden. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

For any kid, a visit to the grandparents is something magical. Grandparents, after all, tend to be the ones who spoil the kids, treat them like royalty, allow them to do things their parents would never let them do (and ironically, that the grandparents never let their parents do when they were kids). What kid wouldn’t want to spend a week with their grandparents?

Becca (DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Oxenbould) are about to head to rural Pennsylvania to visit their Nana (Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (McRobbie). The older couple is estranged from their mother (Hahn) who was dating someone they didn’t approve of; they had a big fight and mom did something so awful that she can’t bring herself to tell her daughter what it was. Becca hopes that she can make a documentary  (because, every kid in a horror film wants to be an auteur) about the visit so she can capture her mom’s parents forgiving their child on tape and healing the rift between them.

At first, it seems an ideal visit; it’s winter and snow covers the farm that they live on, but Nana is making all sorts of cookies and baked goods it seems hourly and Pop-Pop is full of bonhomie and charm. The kids are a little taken aback by a few rules – not to leave their room after 9:30pm or to ever go into the basement because of a mold problem but these seem harmless enough.

Then the two older people start acting…a little off. Pop-Pop seems disturbingly paranoid and Nana seems to absolutely go bonkers after dark. Becca and Tyler capture it all on tape. Mom, who has gone on a cruise with her boyfriend (Cordoba) is skeptical. It soon becomes apparent to the kids that there is something very wrong going on in Pennsylvania and that there may be no going home for them – ever.

Director M. Night Shyamalan has had a very public career, becoming a wunderkind right out of the box with a pair of really well-made movies. The next two weren’t quite as good and since then he’s been on a terrible streak of movies that are, to be generous, mediocre at best and downright awful at worst. The good news is that this is his best effort in nearly a decade. The bad news is that isn’t saying very much.

Shyamalan uses the found footage conceit which has gotten pretty old and stale at this point. To his credit, he does as good a job as anyone has lately, but he also violates a lot of the tropes of the sub-genre, adding in graphics and dissolves which kind of spoil the illusion of watching raw footage from essentially home movies. I have to say that I think it was a tactical error to do this in found footage format; the movie might have been stronger had he simply told the story using conventional means.

Shyamalan has had a history of finding talented juvenile actors and extracting terrific performances from them; DeJonge is the latest in that string. Yes, she can be too chipper and too annoying, but then again when you consider the age of her character that’s not out of step with how young teen and preteen girls behave. She’s just so, Oh my God!

Oxenbould isn’t half bad either, although his character who is gregarious, outgoing and a little bit too smug for his own good can be grating from time to time, particularly when he starts to rap. Misogyny isn’t cute even when it’s coming out of the mouth of a 12-year-old and some of the lyrics are borderline in that regard. It may be authentic, but ending each rap with a reference to a fairly unflattering portrayal of women is something I could have done without.

Tyler is something of comic relief here and he does it pretty well. I liked the business of him deciding to clean up his language by using female pop singers names in place of expletives, like shouting “Sara McLaughlin!” when he stubs a toe, or “Shakira!” instead of a word for excrement. It’s a cute idea and I have to admit I chuckled at it but again, seems to reflect a fairly low opinion of women.

Shyamalan excels at making the audience feel a little off-balance and while the twist ending here (you know there had to be one) isn’t on par with some of his others, it is at least a decent one. There are a few plot holes – early on Shyamalan makes it clear that there’s no cell phone service at the farmhouse and yet the kids are able to get on a laptop and use Skype. Where’s the Wi-Fi coming from? Perhaps the aliens from Signs are providing it.

Nonetheless, this is a pretty taut suspense movie that has elements of horror in it and makes for solid entertainment. Fans of Shyamalan will welcome this return to form while those who take great delight in trolling the man may be disappointed that he didn’t serve up another helping of turkey. Think of this as kind of a pre-Halloween thriller and don’t pay too much attention to the man behind the curtain; hopefully this will signal that Shyamalan is back on track and ready to fulfill the promise that he exhibited nearly 20 years ago.

REASONS TO GO: Decently tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Quasi-found footage getting old hat.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing thematic material and child peril, some nudity, plenty of violence and terror and brief foul language, not to mention gratuitous rapping.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the movie was Sundowning.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Demon Seed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mission to Lars

Lincoln


Lincoln

The pressures of being President encapsulated.

(2012) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gloria Reuben. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, author of the Gettysburg Address and for all intents and purposes, Savior of a Nation, is revered beyond any President this nation has ever known. He is considered by many to be the greatest President in the history of our nation; his face is one of four that adorns Mt. Rushmore and along with Washington is a literal icon of American history.

But with all the praise heaped upon him, the hero worship accorded him, the legendary status given him, we sometimes forget – in fact more than sometimes – that he was a man. In this latest film from Steven Spielberg nearly a dozen years in the making, we are presented with not only President Lincoln but with Abraham Lincoln – father, husband, raconteur, wily politician, lawyer and human being.

We pick up the story as Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is trying to get the13th Amendment passed. This constitutional amendment would ban slavery. The war is in its waning days and he is concerned that his Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t stand legal challenge which would surely come with the South rejoining the union which is what is expected will happen. He is concerned that will put the country back into the same position twenty years hence and a second civil war would surely destroy the Union utterly forever.

His Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) is in agreement and knows that once the South sues for peace which could happen at any time, the Amendment will never pass the fractious House of Representatives (the Amendment had already passed the Senate) and is 20 votes shy of the two thirds majority that is required. The time to get those votes is now; the House is in a lame duck situation with plenty of Democrats being shown the door in recent elections; not having to worry about re-election they could vote their conscience or on a baser level, these men would soon be needing jobs and could be persuaded to see reason with the right offer.

To that end Seward has employed William Bilbo (Spader), a lobbyist from New York whose chicanery is legendary. In the meantime, Lincoln is preparing for his inauguration and welcoming his son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) home from college. Robert is keen on joining the military and doing his duty to his country which Lincoln’s wife Mary (Field) is utterly against; she has already lost one son (in childhood to typhus) and will not lose another. Losing the first one drove her to the point of madness.

Opposing the bill are crafty politician George Pendleton (McRobbie) and firebrand orator Fernando Wood (Pace) from the Democratic side. Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) of Pennsylvania supports it, and is the target of the Democrats who wish the bill to fail. In the meantime, Francis Preston Blair (Holbrook) who founded the Republican party and whose influence can insure all the Republican representatives toe the line, is eager to go down to Richmond and negotiate a peace. Lincoln gives him permission to do so in return for his support.

Blair is in fact successful, getting the Confederacy to send a trio of peace negotiators led by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Haley) but Lincoln orders them kept out of Washington in order to allow the Amendment to pass which it would not if the Congressmen knew that peace negotiations were underway. The clock is ticking and nothing less than the future of the Union is at stake. What will Lincoln do to ensure that future is slavery free?

As it turns out, a whole lot. I have to admit that I was impressed with Lincoln’s political acumen which I didn’t know much about. He was often underestimated by his contemporaries who thought him an uneducated rube from the sticks but in fact even if he was self-educated he was shrewd and had the foresight to understand that a slave economy was a limited economy and that the U.S. would never be able to grow as a nation with one in place. Of course, he also recognized the immorality of it.

But what the movie achieves which to me is even greater is that it brings Lincoln into focus as a man. Not only does Spielberg accomplish this by creating an authentic atmosphere for the tale to be told within, but to allow Day-Lewis – one of the greatest actors of our time – to inhabit the role. I was surprised at the high-pitched voice Day-Lewis uses for Lincoln but contemporary accounts confirm that the Great Emanciptor’s voice was in fact not the sonorous baritone we have come to associate with it. It was more of a tenor.

You get the compassion of the man, but also the frustrations he suffered as both a man – the loss of his son was a blow he never really recovered from – and as a politician. He felt every one of the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred during the war keenly and bore their weight on his shoulders. Lincoln has been characterized as an awkward gangly man and Day-Lewis gets the posture exactly. The performance is so massive, so overpowering that you can’t help but feel that this is going to be accorded an Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s performance in Flight will be as well. Both performances could easily win it, with the slight nod going to Day-Lewis.

Field also gives a performance that will be given consideration come Oscar time. Mary Todd Lincoln is often characterized as someone whose sanity was on the brink (she would eventually be committed to the sanitarium years after her husband’s assassination) but here she is strong and determined, giving Thaddeus Stevens an earful at a White House function. She is a First Lady without a doubt, one who not only saved the White House from dilapidation but defended her husband like  lioness.

There are some great supporting performances here as well, including Jones, Strathairn, Gordon-Levitt and Holbrook at the fore. While I learned a great deal about Lincoln the man, Lincoln the film never fails to be entertaining. It is a bit long and in places long-winded but you wind up feeling like you know the 16th President a little bit better and admiring him a little bit more. This country could use another President like him and sadly, it will be a long time if ever that we get one.

REASONS TO GO: Humanizes an icon. Another Oscar-caliber performance by Day-Lewis (and Field as well). Informative and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: You know how the story ends.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are images of the carnage of war and the brutality of slavery. There’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg spent twelve years (off and on) researching the movie. He recreated Lincoln’s executive mansion office precisely down to the wallpaper and books. The ticking of the pocket watch is Lincoln’s actual watch taken from the Lincoln Historical society – it was the watch he had with him the night of his assassination.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Days

CIVIL WAR LOVERS: .A nice re-creation of the bombardment of Wilmington and the battle thereafter. Also a look at the waning days of the war which are rarely captured in Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Fifth Quarter