BRIDGE OF SPIES: MEDIOCRITY AT ITS WORST

bridge of spies

I need to start of by qualifying the rest of this post and say that I am a fan of what Steven Spielberg used to be, and an even bigger fan of both what Tom Hanks used to be and, on occasion, still is: powerhouses in the movie world. Before this film, watching a Spielberg-Hanks collaboration was cinema magic for me, specifically Catch Me if You Can and Saving Private Ryan (never saw The Terminal so I cannot say anything about it). When I first heard that they would be collaborating again, I was so happy that I might see a film as witty and charming as Catch Me if You can or as emotionally powerful as Saving Private Ryan, but then the trailers started appearing and my anticipating waned. I finally got around to seeing this film because it is Oscar season and I make a point to see every major film nominated for an Oscar. Oh how I wish I could get back the last two and a half hours.

As I sat through this film the same few thoughts kept: This is the most heavy-handed spy film I have ever seen, Spielberg’s direction feels old and tired, and I cannot believe this was nominated for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor when so many other better nominees were left in the cold.

The first two points sort of go hand-in-hand because it is without question that Spielberg’s old and tired directing style is what lead to the overt heavy-handedness of the movie, which is what ultimately made this movie so abysmally mediocre. The same directing cliches are used continuously throughout the movie that make it feel utterly stale, the use of a joke three times throughout a movie, using the same woman on the train to show the audience what people think of the main character at the start and end of the film, and over-the-top acting from the “villains” of the film to help us remember that they are villains. For instance, throughout the movie James Donovan (Tom Hanks) asks Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) if he is worried three separate times, and each time, without fail, Abel responds “would it help?” And, of course, the third time this conversation happens is when they are walking to the center of the bridge to make the exchange and they are discussing the possibility that Abel is killed once the soviets take him. I find it personally insulting that Spielberg would allow for something so obvious to occur in this film, and to know that the Coen Brothers have writing credits for this film just makes it worse.

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As for the woman referenced above, Spielberg so blatantly uses her in this film to depict what the public thinks of Donovan that when she showed up for the second time at the end of the film, I could actually feel my eyes roll to the back of my head. I posted both images of her staring down Donovan just to prove how ridiculous this whole thing is. In both scenes both Hanks and the woman are shot from the exact same seats on the train and in both everyone on the train happens to be reading about Donovan’s latest adventure as he happens to be sitting there. The only thing that makes the second scene worse is that Donovan just finished having a conversation with Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) where he told Powers that he should not worry about what others think of him, as long as he knows the truth of what he did. You cannot have a character swear off the need for recognition for doing the right thing, then make that same character happy by giving him vindication in the form of approval from a character who previously scorned him. IT’S ABSOLUTE NONSENSE!

Next I just need to discuss some of the over-the-top characters that are meant to be villains. First, Abel’s fake family in Berlin.

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These three individuals present themselves to Donovan as Abel’s wife, daughter, and his cousin. Donovan is brought to an office in the Russian Embassy in Berlin to speak to a negotiator for the prisoner exchange. Instead of finding the negotiator, he instead finds these three, claiming to be Abel’s family. God forbid the audience actually believe that Abel is related to these people, Spielberg has them give such an over-the-top performance, followed by this emotionless walk out of the office that the audience can now be reassured in their belief that these are just spies, and not Abel’s family. It’s a good thing that Spielberg did not allow for any mystery in this spy film, that would just be silly and absurd.  Donovan was told he would be negotiating with Vogol, a german attorney and friend of the GDR’s Attorney General, but instead he first negotiates with Ivan Schischkin (Mikhail Gorevoy).

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I will give Spielberg credit for at least hiring a Russian actor to play the Russian ambassador, but that is where my credit ends. Spielberg forces Gorevoy to give such an over-the-top performance that Schischkin comes off as untrustworthy and conniving from the first moment you see him. Again, this is a movie involving spies and the cold war, is there really no room for subtlety here? Can the audience really not be trusted to determine through the course of dialogue and events that someone is untrustworthy? And it is not even good direction becuase Schischkin ends up doing exactly what he promises and the facts presented at the end of the film inform the audience that Abel was returned home to be with his family, and not killed by the soviets. So it isn’t even proper direction to make Schischkin appear less than a man of his word. Did he try to negotiate his position? sure, but that was his god damn job, that was why he was there. Having said that, when we do meet Vogol (Sebastian Koch), he turns out to actually be a subtly portrayed character, which is ironic because he is the only one to actually trick Donovan and make him spend a night in the GDR prison. I will give all the credit for this subtlety to Koch who showed an equal measure of subtlety in his roles in The Lives of Others and Homeland. After Vogol, we are introduced to Harold Ott (Burghart Klaussner), the East German Attorney General.

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First, Spielberg has the meeting with Ott placed at a giant empty conference room, as if he is some James Bond villain. Spoiler alert: he’s not. And once again, Spielberg has this poor guy yelling and banging the table one second, the fanciful answering the wrong phone the next (he has four or five phones on the table, because you can never have too many phones in a conference room). Honestly, don’t even know what to make of this character because he is on screen for no more than 5 minutes. I have no idea why Spielberg chose to portray him the way that he did, other than to spoon feed the audience the idea that Ott is a less composed and worse negotiator than Donovan.

This leads me to the final thought I had throughout this film: This film robbed other films of Oscar nominations in the best picture and best supporting actor categories. Not only should this film not be considered one of the best films of 2015, it shouldn’t even be considered one of the best Cold War films. Hanks literally made a better Cold War film previously, Charlie Wilson’s War, which isn’t great, but it’s certainly very good. To really see the greatness of what a Cold War film could be, I couldn’t recommend the movies The Lives of Others and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy any more highly. To really get a sense for what subtle acting and direction can do for a spy film, one need only compare Tinker Tailor to this film. In fact, if you have not yet seen Bridge of Spies, you can just skip it completely and go see these two movies instead. You’ll be all the better for it. As for Mark Rylance’s Oscar nomination, he did a fine job, I have no real complaints about his performance, considering what he was given to work with. However, it’s simply ridiculous to say that his performance was Oscar worthy when there were so many better performances from supporting actors this year, such as: Benicio Del Toro or Josh Brolin for Sicario, Samuel L. Jackson in Hateful Eight, or Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. I found all these roles to be more difficult than the role of Rudolf Abel, and were all better executed by the above actors than by Mark Rylance.

As I said from the very beginning, this movie doesn’t upset me because it’s bad. It’s not a bad movie. It upsets me because, for the talent that you have in this film, it is so absolutely mediocre, yet garnering praise that could have been given to other, more worthy films. It literally angers me to know that the academy gave this film a very undeserving Best Picture nomination. And why? Because it’s Spielberg and it’s Hanks and it’s the Cold War, making it the perfect recipe for Oscar bait, regardless of whether it actually deserves such a distinguished nomination. Like I said, if you’re looking to watch a Cold War film, you can do so much better with The Lives of Others and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

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Ex Machina: Intelligence in the Machina (SPOILERS)

Ex Machina

I saw Ex Machina a couple weeks ago and decided to wait before I posted about this film, because I couldn’t tell at first if I just liked the film because I had just finished watching it or if I thought it was a genuinely good film. However, during these last couple weeks, my thoughts have kept returning to this film, as the ideas and puzzles presented in it kept nagging away at me, begging me to reconsider aspects of the film again and again.

Ex Machina is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, a man who has previously won me over with his screenwriting on Sunshine, and 28 Days Later. He is also apparently working on a screenplay for the ever so elusive project of a Halo film (fingers crossed). Garland’s directing has a very clean and crisp style, making the film enjoyable to take in and experience. The directing was not perfect, but as first timers go, it was certainly a powerful presentation.

The film revolves around Caleb (Doomhnall Gleeson) a programmer who works for a company called Blue Book (basically Google), who wins a contest to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator of Blue Book. Caleb soon learns that his true purpose there is to conduct a test on Nathan’s new invention, an A.I. unit named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb is asked to run a Turing Test, a conversational test with an A.I. to evaluate whether it exhibits actual intelligence. Caleb and Nathan, however, decide that the traditional Turing Test is incomplete, because if you play chess with a chess machine it will appear to exhibit intelligence, but really it is just running its designed program. Caleb begins a week of conversations with Ava to determine if Ava is simply, metaphorically speaking, a machine playing chess, or has the intelligence to understand what chess is and that she is playing a game. SPOILERS BELOW. SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU WISH TO AVOID THEM.

During his sessions with Ava, Caleb learns that Ava has been causing power outages in the facility in order to have private, unrecorded conversations with Caleb. During these private conversations, she warns that Nathan is not to be trusted, and that he has been lying to Caleb this whole time. She expresses that she has deep feelings for Caleb and she pleads with Caleb to help her escape the facility. These sessions solidify in Caleb’s mind that Ava is exhibiting true intelligence, and passes both the Turing Test and the Chess Test. He also learns that there have been previous A.I. attempts that ended terribly for the units, either being taken apart, or breaking themselves in their attempts to escape the facility. In Caleb’s final confrontation with Nathan, Nathan reveals that he knew of the escape plan they thought of the whole time and that Ava was actually manipulating Caleb’s emotions, showing Caleb a video of Ava drawing a picture of Caleb and saying “it’s difficult to create something you hate.” Nathan explains that to solve the problem of the chess test, he introduced Nathan to Ava to see if Ava would be able to use and manipulate Caleb to help herself escape. For Nathan, this would be the true sign of  an intelligence that passes both the Turing test and the chess test. Nathan is too late with his reveal however, as Caleb already set the escape plan in motion, freeing Ava, who eventually kills Nathan, locks Caleb inside the facility, unable to free himself, and escapes to freedom.

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The plot presents and interesting question of whether Ava truly passes the Turing test or not. On the one hand, she meets the criteria of the test designed by Nathan, but on the other, it is never made clear what her mental design actually is. If she was designed specifically to accomplish the task set out by Nathan, then is she really exhibiting A.I. or is she just a computer playing chess. If Nathan created her mind as a blank slate, however (we learn that her mind’s software is Blue Book, so she basically has the expanse of Blue Book’s raw information to help mold her mind), and she passes Nathan’s test independent of her original programming, then she truly does exhibit A.I. There are moments in the film that certainly point heavily towards the latter, as we see her expressing emotion towards the previous A.I. units, something that would not have been programmed into her. However, an argument can be made that she is in fact just a computer playing chess, she just happened to be the best chess player.

This film screams of being a modern day version of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, even making allusions to Shelly’s novel with Nathan making references to Prometheus, and Shelly’s novel being named “The Modern Prometheus”. But the conclusion of Ex Machina may or may not bring out the same feelings of sympathy for Ava, as Shelly’s novel did for Frankenstein’s monster.

I cannot end this post without crediting Isaac, Gleeson, and Vikander, with excellent performances. This is Isaac’s second project with A24 Films. The first was A Most Violent Year, which was a horrible, slow film, with poor editing and poorer screenplay. Isaac in this previous film seemed wholly disconnected with the movie, uninterested in his work in every scene he was in. Yet, here, he is back to giving the great performances we expect from him, a performance that equals that of his performance in Inside Llewyn Davis and Drive. He brings such honesty and life to Nathan as a character that you can almost recognize Nathan as someone you know. Isaac’s performance is simply inspiring.

Gleeson and Vikander must also be complimented for their work. Neither performance was able to steal a scene in the way that Isaac constantly did, but I found them to be well cast for their roles. Gleeson brings out the sympathetic, lonely, and naive nature in Caleb, that is necessary for Caleb’s character to function in this film.

Vikander performed exceptionally, considering her role required two different performances. At times she acted as the pleasant A.I. creation, and at other times, she acted as the being urgently seeking a way to escape her surroundings. She would switch from these two roles almost instantly, as the scene would demand. Ava is probably the most difficult character to act out, and Vikander shined in her performance.

I feel I must watch this film again, as there have to be things I missed that could resolve the conflict in my head and answer the question that the film wants answered. I do believe this is a great film, and the type of hard sci-fi no longer often seen today. Go see the film, and see if it with a friend. You’ll need a friend, because you’ll want to discuss as soon as it ends.