Friday, 6 November 2015

Movie Review: Bridge Of Spies (2015)



This is the kind of double act that film buffs construct entire fantasy worlds around. On one hand, we have filmmaking maestro Steven Spielberg, the man who helped define cinema as it stands today. He is the reason why the word ‘blockbuster’ exists in Hollywood. On the other hand, we have the Coen brothers, whose captivating and poignant stories have gone to dominate both the underground and the mainstream. Hell, how many filmmakers do you know of whose works have inspired an entire religion around them? But you know the saying about what the road to Hell was built on; just because you have two great tastes doesn’t automatically mean you’re on the verge of the next Reese’s. But, out of respect for three legends of the craft, I will hope and pray at the altar of Welles that this all pans out for the best. So, while I clean up these red ashes off of my keyboard, let’s dive into today’s subject: This is Bridge Of Spies.

The plot: When Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is charged with being a spy for the Soviets, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is hired as his defence lawyer in what is ultimately a show trial. However, once news hits that Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is arrested by the Soviets for espionage, it seems that Donovan’s choices may work out to the U.S. government’s favour as he is hired to head an exchange effort between Abel and Powers.

The acting here is… unexpected, to say the least. I say that because, aside from Tom Hanks, there aren’t any names that immediately leap out at me as being all that prominent in cinema today. Sure, I’ve encountered a few of them earlier in the year: Alan Alda made for the only consistently good thing about The Longest Ride, Jesse Plemons made for a decent gangster in Black Mass and Peter McRobbie was fantastic in The Visit; otherwise, it seems like these actors weren’t picked for name-brand recognition and more for ability. That they certainly have in spades, as everyone does well in their roles. However, probably out of prominence both in marketing and in the film itself, Tom Hanks came out as the acting highlight with his well-honed charisma and poise.

From the premise alone, without even needing to see how it is executed, I already have to give the film praise. With the tested-and-bested formula for Oscar bait dictating that stories set during World War II are the way to go for that Academy gold, there aren’t sufficient words to describe how much of a relief it is to see a film that takes place outside of that time frame. This is especially appreciated considering it’s nearly Oscar season for us here in Australia, and this can serve as a nice oasis for the overly sentimental Godwin’s Law-crushing fare that is bound to come up. It helps that, because the Cold War is probably best known for its sheer lack of overt action being taken, it means that it’s a chance for the writing to shine… and it is here that my first worries start to creep in. As much as I love the Coen brothers, my words when it comes to Unbroken should bring up their biggest problem: They only seem comfortable when they are writing for their own films, not when someone else is directing. It doesn’t help that this is another project much like Unbroken where they were brought in for ‘script revision’; any second now, and Tom Hanks could break out into a Kabuki rendition of Mary Poppins. However, it seems that they have found the right project for their words, along with how much of Matt Charman’s original script remains. While the film may have the background of a legal drama, the legal proceedings themselves are mainly glossed over… which actually works to the film’s advantage, given its heavy themes concerning show trials and how the politics behind said proceedings is where the action happens. Speaking of the background proceedings, these could have very easily fallen into jargonese and lost most of the audience, but thanks to the whip-smart but still emotional writing, these dialogue-driven scenes stay engaging throughout the film. We also get a good look into the minds of the people involved, namely Donovan and Abel. Abel in particular feels like the most Coen-esque part of the overall product, as his refrain of “Would it help?” when asked why he isn’t more worried about his circumstances echo the kind of mentality that audiences grew so attached to from The Dude.

As for Donovan, his way of thinking when it comes to the hoops he has to jump through and the scolding he receives for doing what he believes is right is portrayed very well, almost to a fault. After all of the talk concerning the moral bleaching that apparently went on involving Saving Mr. Banks, I’m honestly surprised at how much this bothered me but it still stands: The man is portrayed too heavily as the white knight of the story. Throughout the film, everyone from his family to his colleagues are against him in believing that Abel deserves his fair day in court, either out of what it will make people think or just because it feels wrong to defend ‘the enemy’. To add to this, without fault, Donovan defends Abel and does everything he can to make sure not only him but the people he is being traded for are safe. Even as someone who has a great affinity for Jean Valjean for similar reasons, Donovan comes across as way too clean, especially considering the rampant ‘Reds under the bed’ paranoia that ran through the U.S. at the time. Show at least one other person who saw that Donovan was doing the right thing, or have Donovan portray some form of conflict concerning his own involvement and the possible ramifications of it; either way, a couple shades of grey wouldn’t have gone unnoticed.

What makes the bleached feel of the film’s overall tone hurt even more is the fact that, in terms of moral message, this might be one of the most poignant to be released this year when it comes to a message about everyone getting their fair say. And no, I’m not going to resort to a long-winded rant concerning how Western civilization treats those branded as ‘terrorists’ or even ‘asylum seekers’; instead, I’m talking about matters even closer to home. For the sake of this argument, I’ll use an example that should be familiar to those who are currently going through its aftermath (The U.S.A.), those still struggling with the decision (Australia) and those that have yet to take their official stance in the debate (take your pick, honestly): Same-sex marriage. I bring this up specifically not just because it is still (regrettably) a heated topic of discussion but also because it is a topic where the kind of mindset this film exemplifies runs amok; that of quieting the opposition as best as possible. Even among those who want same-sex marriage to be legally recognized (which include myself, for the record), there is an awful lot of hypocrisy when it comes to who gets to have their say. As much as Kim Davis’ actions have been derided ever since the news hit, I don’t begrudge her decision to not give out that marriage certificate if that is how she genuinely feels on the subject. Sure, she should have just quit her job if she felt so strongly about it and bring in someone who is actually willing to do the job that they are being paid to do, but my point still stands. I hold no ill will against dissenting opinions; hell, there’s a reason why I have such a problem with people making judgement calls when talking about movies and that’s because no personal attacks should be made on those grounds. What I’m getting at with all this waffle is that, even with how squeaky clean our protagonist is, this film is still surprisingly relevant today in showing people that everyone, no matter how far removed their views are from your own, has a right to be heard.

All in all, given the lofty expectations that come pre-packaged with team-ups like this, this more than paid off. Even with my misgivings considering the moral tones of the story, the Coen brothers seem to have found a separate director that they can comfortably write for as their dialogue here carries that same air of ethos and pathos that have made them the cinematic champions that they are. To say nothing of Spielberg’s direction, which brings out the best in the actors and delivers suitably sombre, tense and even warm feelings when they are called for. For anyone who enjoyed Spielberg’s work with Lincoln, this is definitely something to check out. It fares better than Southpaw, as the writing isn’t nearly as trite; if anything, it marks a refreshingly new note for the year’s releases. However, when marking up writing against the production as a whole, the unfortunate interruptions aren’t quite enough to make me recognize The Book Of Life as being lesser than this film.

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