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

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

★★

Director: John Moore

Release Date: February 14th, 2013 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Crime; Thriller

Starring: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney

If Jai Courtney wasn’t a younger, less-bald Bruce Willis he probably wouldn’t have been part of A Good Day to Die Hard. Similarly, if Live Free or Die Hard hadn’t scooped up almost $400 million at the box office, six years later we wouldn’t have to sit through this shallowest of John McClane sequels. A total horror-show it ain’t, but apparently some people don’t think cricket is boring and most of us hate that. After a long journey extending all they back to terror in the tower in 1988, there has been a severe breakdown at stop five. Though after two and a half decades spent invariably recycling old material, what more d’you expect?

A less capable, more cigar-and-newspaper-on-a-Sunday-morning appearing John McClane (Bruce Willis) travels to Russia upon hearing that his son has had a run-in with the law having been arrested for an assassination attempt. In reality, Jack (Jai Courtney) is an undercover CIA agent working to bring down dangerous and corrupt government official, Viktor Chagarin, although John doesn’t realise this, probably because of that age thing. An explosion coordinated by Chagarin during the resultant trial allows Jack and whistle-blower Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) to escape custody, and chaos ensues.

The film is stuck between trying too hard to be slyly comedic on one hand and a serious action flick on the other. The original Die Hard got this mix spot on, mainly because the premise was ridiculously exciting, Willis looked interested and Alan Rickman delivered one of the finest villainous performances in recent cinema history. Here the narrative is a poorly executed mess and Willis looks like a guy who has randomly invaded a film set while on his holidays abroad, perhaps thinking it’s all part of a Russian cultural process. There are also more bad-guys on show than laughs, although having said that you’d be hard-pushed to exude more than a handful chuckles.

The plot then. Wearing more holes than an unending golf course, it doesn’t take long to induce a succession of wearisome head-shakes. After essentially saving the world throughout his previous four films, you’d expect John McClane to have a bit of know-how about him when it comes to dealing with machine-gun wielding terrorists. Apparently not anymore: his first conversation with Jack comes nonchalantly in the presence of bullets harpooning all over the place and the odd explosion going off. Ah, it’s probably to do with the age thing. There are far too many contrivances, the most notable being an endless progression of villains, each one ‘badder’ than the next. It gets so ludicrous that McClane himself to switching sides wouldn’t come as a total shock (hey, that sounds like a better film). I think son Jack gets it right as at one point he alludes to, “Making it up as we go”.

Sticking with Jai Courtney, he’s not a bad actor at all. In fact he’s fairly decent in this given the retched dialogue that’s being spluttered about: “But I’m your father”; “And I’m your daughter,” is probably the worst of a bad bunch that collectively cannot be saved by ‘knock, knock’ jokes or even former franchise favourites (“Yippee ki-yay…”). Willis’ spark as McClane is non-existent; the eccentric hero has turned charisma vacuum. Again the script really doesn’t help matters and there aren’t any outlandish sequences that give Willis the platform to be his glorious former action-star self, however the man simply looks like he really cannot be bothered with it all. One of the major let downs of the entire film is how little the super-talented Mary Elizabeth Winstead is utilised. McClane’s daughter was introduced in the previous outing and is relegated to a beginning and end cameo. Her only real contribution is offering McClane an ‘Idiot’s Travel Guide’ before his journey to Russia. That must be another age joke then. Given the lack of intuition on display, her scarcity is even more criminal.

On the plus side the action scenes do look great, having evolved to even grander scale this time around. In particular the helicopter scene at the end is excellently executed and actually gives the film a bit of oomph to clutch onto towards its climax. Unfortunately no visual escapade can save proceedings, and the only other glaring positive to take from A Good Day to Die Hard is that you only have to sit through an hour and a half before checking it off your list of films never to sit through again. The sheer disappointment stems from the franchise’s previous successes, principally the pleasantly surprising Live Free or Die Hard, and therefore there can be no excuses dealt in serving up this newest nonsense.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. On this evidence you can’t teach an old dog much else either. If only McClane had made do with living free, nevertheless, this is probably a good day for the Die Hard adventure to die hard.