Bridge of Spies (2015)

★★★★★

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Bridge of Spies PosterDirector: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: October 16th, 2015 (US); November 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance

Silence dominates the opening moments of Bridge of Spies. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is the target, tailed by a swarm of men wearing fedoras. The possible KGB operative remains stony-faced — his dirty nails suggesting foul play — as he retrieves a silver coin which, after much tinkering and magnifying, opens to reveal a tiny folded message. It’s the late-1950s and the Cold War is at its peak. The US is feeling the after-effects of the Rosenbergs. McCarthyism is rife. Trials and conspiracies dominate the landscape. Director Steven Spielberg even insists upon showing us the construction of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing chaos in Germany. It’s that kind of movie.

Back in the US, a country scarred mentally rather than physically by rising tensions, we meet lawyer James Donovan. Donovan is clearly a smart man, and we don’t simply know this because he’s being played by Tom Hanks; we also see him outwit a fellow professional during a metaphor-heavy conversation about bowling pins and tornadoes. He has a way with words, and reverberates a diplomacy that wholly fits his occupation. For this reason Donovan ends up defending Abel in court, a job his superior suggests will be straightforward given guilt is unequivocal. Simply put, “It’s a patriotic duty”. “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose”, quips Donovan. It’s also that kind of movie.

See, Donovan is a beacon of ethical clarity in a murky world, and that’s why we endorse him with so much fondness. He relentlessly holds injustice to account in the name of his client despite the subsequent threat faced by himself and his family. It is right to defend a potentially wrong man, but is it feasible to do so under such conditions? Perhaps not, yet the upstanding advocate defends anyway. On the topic of family, Spielberg’s admiration and respect for children once again shines through during a talk between Donovan and his son — the latter, though young, hurdles naivety by understanding war is a possibility, and has intelligently worked out the potential radius of an atom bomb in preparation.

Bridge of Spies isn’t a boots-on-the-ground war film though. Rather, it is one that pits apparently important men around tables as they discuss the probability of battle without ever having to actively engage themselves. If anything, events on screen are propelled by a “war of information,” and we get lots of just that via high-stakes-cum-low-key rounds of dialogue. Donovan is at the centre of it all and often finds himself in no man’s land, devoid of support. He faces a grouchy judge in his quest for fairness, and a grouchy US too: locals stare at him with contempt when they realise he is the one defending the Soviet and Donovan unjustly becomes a rash on the domestic landscape.

That’s not how we see it though. Hanks offers more than just A-list reliability; he negotiates political wrinkles and unfair judgement with everyman aplomb. When two Americans face prosecution and trade deals are optioned, Hanks irons out any narrative complications with charm and a coherent tongue. There is nobody better at playing this type of role. On the opposing side, Mark Rylance affords Abel true mystery. The uncouth detachment that the infiltrator purveys could just be an act — he is a foreign agent, after all. But there is a constant kindness to Abel’s words, embodied by his “standing man” speech that reveals itself to be a masterclass in subtlety, beautifully delivered by Rylance.

A rustic production design blankets the movie in a 50s sheen. People use typewriters, wear grey trench coats, and smoke cigars. Yet there is an unavoidable modern truth at the fore too. “This Russian spy came here to threaten our way of life,” barks one particularly cheesed off American lawman, a statement that could easily be reshaped and applied to the climate of cultural blame within which we currently reside. Matt Charman and the Coen brothers’ screenwriting examines what borders mean in conjunction with matters of law (and, by proxy, matters of humanity). This forms another sturdy basis from which we can empathise with the characters on screen (Donovan, for instance, believes Abel has the right to a proper trial even though he isn’t an American citizen).

Spielberg harks back to Road to Perdition with his use of heavy rainfall, dripping umbrellas, and general murkiness. But also, oddly, bouts of light humour and fleeting courtroom trips recall Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. The Coen brothers’ screenplay inflections are those moments of dry comedy, generously spread throughout to loosen the dramatic belt while still giving room to the film’s weighty subject matter. Upon arrival in Germany for tetchy negotiations, Donovan takes up residence in a dingy apartment as his partners, conveniently unable to assist on the ground, are cosied up in the local Hilton hotel.

The gags are a treat, but the imminent possibility of peril seldom retreats. In fact, it grows stronger when we reach East Berlin; a shot from inside a train passing over the Berlin Wall highlights the difference between the fairly controlled west and the decimated east, forming a potential ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture for Donovan should he slip up and fuel the war bid. It is not as tense as, say, Sicario, but the threat of war does teeter on a knife edge and you can just about see each sway amongst the chilly mist.

Thomas Newman contributes a beautiful score that inspires and haunts as it reflects the changing landscapes: homely US, arctic Germany. In typical Spielbergian fashion, Newman’s score also tugs at our heartstrings, either through its grandiose scope (Saving Private Ryan occasionally springs to mind) or, as is the case towards the film’s conclusion, a simple piano melody. It almost goes without saying in 2015 but Spielberg himself is on fine form as he juggles a whole host of characters — Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons, Sebastian Koch, and many more ably support — and a potentially tricky script with sure-fire handiness.

It’s not excessively complex filmmaking, nor is it in any way underfed. There is a clear start point, a clear end point (a lovely one at that), and an admirable confidence in the material. Bridge of Spies is a wonderful, eloquent piece of cinema, delivered by a directorial giant unafraid to promote the practice of principles, and actors who clearly cherish the process. It’s the kind of film that makes going to the pictures worthwhile. It’s that kind of movie.

Bridge of Spies - Tom Hanks

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 20th Century Fox

Fury (2014)

★★★★

Fury PosterDirector: David Ayer

Release Date: October 17th, 2014 (US); October 22nd, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Action; Drama; War

Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña

War is a nasty business. Of course, contemplating the nastiness of war isn’t a new undertaking, nor is it something that Fury director David Ayer feels compelled to shirk away from. His film is really quite horrendous. We see limbless bodies and bodiless limbs more often than we see rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds of 1945 Nazi Germany. Ayer’s intimate tale isn’t a fresh concept to the silver screen and it has absolutely been done better before, but there is a lot to admire here.

As World War II nears its conclusion, a Sherman tank troupe commanded by US Army sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt) is hurtled into the bloody doldrums of battle in Germany. Fighting through urban wastelands and disfigured countrysides, the ‘Fury’ group of five must survive via a combination of camaraderie and brute force, all the while depositing innocence at each rotation of their vehicle’s caterpillar track.

Ayer localises a grand story and his film is all the better for it. Often, the key to success in the war genre is engaging an audience in the plight of a few whilst also acknowledging the struggle of many. Fury manages this, no doubt aided by a stringently focused narrative that follows a particular group of soldiers. It’s their story and we’re always in their presence, allowing time (well over two hours of it) for us to empathise with the characters. And while the camera never ventures more than a few feet from at least one of the five, Ayer’s induction of a heavy and wearisome tone relentlessly captures the universal toil of war.

These characters don’t write the guidelines on positive morality either. In fact, their contribution to the Allied war effort has flurried any goodness purveyed by Collier and his crew. They each have a nickname — fittingly Collier’s is Wardaddy. That is not to say the man heralds a thirst for battle, rather it highlights Wardaddy’s efficiency in dark turmoil. (“Do as you’re told, don’t get close to anyone”). Brad Pitt plays him without immediate discernibility, casting doubt not over the sergeant’s motives, but over his methods. Ayer’s quintessential heroes are nothing of the sort. There are no good guys, only perceived bad guys.

The remainder of the group bear roles that are more clearly defined: Technician Boyd “Bible” Swan is the devoted religious type; Corporal Trini “Gordo” Garcia steers the tank with eccentricity; PFC Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis lacks moderation; and Private Norman Ellison carries the newbie status, a kid lost amongst a conflict in which he shouldn’t be fighting. Logan Lerman exudes ordinariness as Norman, reminding us of war’s infecting bullet wounds on humanity. Walking Dead alumni Jon Bernthal is also terrific as the gruff Coon-Ass but it’s Shia LaBeouf who wows more than any other. Scrubbing the stigma of celebrity from his face and replacing it with rotten dirt, LaBeouf displays a great deal of restraint, his eyes never far from filling with tears fuelled by a scarred mind. It turns out he can act, and act well.

LaBeouf’s character is the agent through which Ayer introduces a religious thread, one that doesn’t wholly endear itself to the narrative but does contribute towards an emotive punch. These faith-based overtones aren’t distracting as they only rear occasionally, and despite manifesting as a tad contrived, they do represent an attempt to manoeuvre proceedings away from any potential muscle bound machoness of battle. Indeed, the film manages to extract a large helping of connectivity from the audience through solemnity, a theme that runs along the piece like one of Nazi Germany’s seemingly endless mud trails. This helpless sobriety is first summed up in statement relayed by Jason Isaacs’ army Captain (“Why don’t they just quit?”), before revealing itself plainly in an extended Inglorious Basterds-esque dining room scene rightly devoid of any Tarantino quirk.

After 90 minutes of gruesome despair, the outing suddenly shifts its gaze in the direction of a more action-packed conclusion. The final act essentially wears the hallmark of a western standoff, trading cowboy hats for leather helmets. Granted in its final half hour Fury still maintains a gritty realism but this divergence in tone might not appease all. Tank jousts do occur before the lengthy concluding sequence, but frequently end in a matter of minutes. These battles are arduous in their execution, just as they should be, and do not glorify the mechanical face of war at all, whereas it could be argued that the long, underdog-ish rallying cry denoted in the final act does invite a semblance of glorification.

Technically, the film is a powerhouse. Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov turns the English countryside (where shooting primarily took place) into a bleak, putrefying Nazi Germany at the end of its tether. Two scenes stand out especially: a beautiful opening shot that patiently stalks a lone horseman as he tramples over smoky ruins and comes face to face with the fragility of tanks, and a dread filled moment nearer the end that involves a collection of simultaneously marching and chanting enemy troops. This uncompromising style meshes wonderfully with Steven Price’s score and pinpoint sound editing, and comes as close as any film to achieving the fist-clenching ambience of Saving Private Ryan.

It is certainly not as good as Spielberg’s aforementioned masterpiece, but not many outings born from this particular genre are. Fury is a visceral and effective retelling of war at its most desperate and least forgiving. If nothing else, it’s an example of high standard utility filmmaking.

Fury - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures