Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Alternate Title:  Saving Captain Powers

One sentence synopsis:     An insurance lawyer from Brooklyn is asked by his company to defend a Soviet Spy in his trial, and by the US government to negotiate his exchange for American pilot Gary Powers.

Things Havoc liked: I really should not have to introduce Steven Spielberg to anyone. If he's not the greatest filmmaker of the modern age (and he probably is), then he's at least on the short list, alongside names like Scorsese, Kubrick, Myazaki, and Scott. Yeah, it's fashionable to denigrate his films as sentimental schlock and no, I've not loved everything that Spielberg has ever made (let us never speak of War Horse again), but make no mistake, Spielberg invented modern Hollywood cinema and has defined it, with revisions, for three and a half decades. When I was a child, he was my favorite director in the world, and now that I am an experienced film connoisseur who can discourse authoritatively on the works of Werner Herzog and Lars von Trier, Spielberg is still (probably) my favorite director in the world, and no amount of twaddle about the "infantilization of American filmgoers" (Peter Biskind can kiss my ass) will ever change that. So far, five years into this project, we have been twice presented by one of Spielberg's films, The Adventures of Tintin (which while not great, was pretty fun), and Lincoln (which while not fun, was pretty great). Now we have another offering before us, a cold war historical thriller of the sort that Spielberg has become increasingly fond of in recent years (Munich comes to mind) starring one of his favorite actors, Tom Hanks, and one of mine, Mark Rylance.

You do know who Mark Rylance is, don't you? A big-time British theater actor who specializes in Shakespeare on stage and television, whom I've not, admittedly, seen a whole lot of in my film-watching career, but I do remember. He was the only good thing in Anonymous, Roland Emmerich's godawful attempt to posit a monarchical conspiracy theory, and also the only good thing in The Gunman, a film that would have to find some ambition before it could become shit. Rylance plays real-life Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, not as any form of movie spy, but as an old, unfailingly polite man, who neither admits his espionage nor explains it, but holds fast to his allegiance without any real explanation as to why. We don't know a lot about Abel, why he became a spy, what his background is, what he hopes to gain from refusing the offers the CIA (understandably) makes to him involving turning double-agent. What little we do get from him is via his interactions with James Donovan, played by Spielberg's favorite actor, Tom Hanks, an insurance lawyer and (*gasp*) everyman good guy assigned to the defense of the accused spy, and following his conviction (spoiler alert), to the task of trying to arrange his exchange for a shot down spy pilot in Berlin.

So far, all I have told you is the plot of the movie and that actors you have or have not heard of are in it, so let me try and actually speak to something good here. Spielberg is one of the great directors after all, and his specialty (or one of them) is this exact sort of Americana period piece. It's no surprise then that the movie's decoration and sense of place is so spot on. Be it 1950s Brooklyn, or 1950s Berlin, the set dressing for this film is absolutely fantastic, neither layered with nostalgia nor over the top in its depiction of the dismal, ruined state of Berlin at the foundation of the Berlin Wall. The smoldering ruins that are all that is left of East Berlin (and would remain all that was left of it until 1989) are beautifully realized, as is the smoldering resentment of the East Germans themselves towards this state of affairs and the hand they have been dealt by global geopolitics in general. Indeed, the film is in no small part about this fact, as Donovan does not engage in spy games, Bondesque or otherwise, but simply shuttles between one part of Berlin and another, making contacts and struggling to understand, however he may, the interests of the various organizations that he has to deal with, Soviet, East German, American, and whatnot. This gets hilarious at times, from the thunderous, bufoonish bombast of the East German minister of... nobody quite knows what, to the tearful overacting of the "family" of the confessed spy, none of whom seem able to keep straight what their relationship with him is, and whose purpose in being foisted on Donovan in advance of his meeting is entirely opaque to us and to him. The take is very much Marx-Brothers-do-The-Cold-War, which is appropriate, given the level of false ambition endemic to spy agencies then (and now).

Things Havoc disliked: If it doesn't sound like I'm making a great case for this film so far, well... there's a reason.

Bridge of Spies, like many movies I can think of made by many good directors, is a film defined by what it is not. It is a spy movie that is not James Bond or Jason Bourne, all action and adventure, nor for that matter is it a John leCarre film about how everyone is evil and posturing and spycraft is useless. It is not a movie about the relationship between Donovan and his charge, though it touches briefly on that point, nor about the life and times of Captain Powers himself, on whose behalf all of this is being done, nor is it a biography of James Donovan, who was a real man who engaged in real negotiations of this sort, serving as an envoy between governments that were not able to recognize one another's existence. It's fine to want to make a movie different from its fellows by not being similar to them, but at a certain point, a movie actually has to BE something, and Bridge of Spies... isn't.

Consider the first half of the movie, which is an extended setup for the second, in which Donovan defends Abel against the charges of espionage, unsuccessfully. We know he is going to be unsuccessful, as the film was advertised to us as being about the negotiations which took place after Abel was convicted, which makes the entire hour of screentime spent watching him be convicted pretty damn pointless, as far as I'm concerned. Spielberg tries to insert some interest, by having a massive public backlash against Donovan for having defended a spy (which never happened), culminating in someone shooting into his house with a machine gun (which also never happened), following which point the police accuse him of being a traitor who deserved to have his family massacred (which I'm willing to predict never freaking happened). The entire event is a ham-fisted effort to ground the film in hysteria so as to wave neon signs to point to similar events from today, tendentious ones that don't fit the tone of the movie. Even if this sort of thing happened all the time in regards to terrorism suspects today (which it does not), Spielberg's inherent sentimentality turns the entire event into an after-school special on how condemning people without trial (which nobody ever considered doing) is a bad thing, because they might be innocent (which Abel isn't).

But lest this sound like another political axe of mine being ground at the expense of another movie, my objection isn't the politics of the film, but the pointlessness of it. More tension is brought to the fold later on, when it turns out the East Germans have seized some college student who strayed on the wrong side of the Wall, and now seek to scupper the impending spy trade by threatening to execute him. This did happen, and adds an interesting wrinkle into the situation before Donovan, but nothing is unfortunately helped by the fact that everyone else involved, CIA, GDR, KGB, or whatnot, are unspeakably stupid. The movie lets Donovan's CIA handler insist, over and over, that they should not exert themselves to save the kid without ever letting the CIA handler give a reason why (and there are reasons why). Unlike last year's Most Wanted Man, I don't think this is because Spielberg actually thinks the CIA are too stupid and evil to have a reason, but it's a diminishing of the film's stakes when we're presented the question of "Do we approve of the execution of innocent college students?" as though it's some kind of deep moral quandary. And lest the film sound biased, the movie manages to go so far over the top with the Eastern Bloc agencies that Donovan winds up having to explain to the East Germans that if they decide to blatantly scupper a deal between the USSR and USA, the Soviet Union, the country which occupies their own with the largest standing military force on the planet, might just get angry.

Final thoughts:    I certainly didn't dislike Bridge of Spies, but the film is almost relentlessly ephemeral, a non-entity of a movie that is, as always, quite difficult as a result to actually talk about. On the scale of Spielberg films, it rates along the lines of things like 1941 or Always, movies that are neither good nor interestingly bad. I barely recall the act of seeing it, just a couple of weeks ago, and will likely remember it even less the next time this project forces me back to the subject. It's a pity, because there's a good movie to be made from the story of Captain Powers, James Donovan, and Rudolf Abel, but given this thing, I think we'll have to wait on that one for another time, and frankly, another director.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  Bond.  James Bond.

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