BRIDGE OF SPIES: MEDIOCRITY AT ITS WORST

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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.

SICARIO: AN EXAMINATION OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

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This is not an original idea, but it has been said that war films can usually be broken down into two categories: films that focus on an individuals struggle during a war and films that focus on the broader scope of the war, showing what the war is on a more macro level, while still showing some of the effect it has on the protagonist. An example of this can be seen in the contrast between The Deer Hunter an Apocalypse Now. Both films are masterful about the Vietnam War, yet both depict the same war in severely different ways. The Deer Hunter very specifically focuses on Michael and Nick and how different they are before and after the war. The war itself is depicted in the film, but it takes a back seat to the characters themselves; it shows us their lives before the war, what happens to them during the war, and their mental state at the conclusion of the war. Apocalypse Now, is a different film. Though it has a compelling protagonist, the true beauty of this film is how it uses Captain Willard to show the audience different aspects of the war. It shows us the soldiers, it shows us various war zones, and it shows the effect that the war has on the locals.

Sicario, plays a delicate game of attempting to show us a film somewhere in between a personal story like The Deer Hunter and a more global story like Apocalypse Now. The film follows the story of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent, who finds herself joining an inter-agency task force with the sole task of fighting the war on drugs. The task force, as explained to Macer, was assembled with the intent of smoking out one of the most powerful drug lords in Mexico. Macer is joined by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) a member of the CIA, and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who is introduced as an adviser to the Department of Defense. A team is then assembled to conduct missions in both Mexico and in the United States, in an effort to frustrate the drug lord enough that he reveals his location. As the plot unfolds, both Macer and the audience slowly begin to learn that there is something more going on than what we have been allowed to know.

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The true beauty of this film is how it uses Kate Macer to keep the story close and personal to the audience, while at the same time placing her in such a vast amount of situations that it allows one to get a feel for the war on a more global level. Kate is presented to us as a “thumper”. She has spent the last four years as part of the FBI’s response team, tactically taking down doors when the FBI requires a forceful entrance. She is not part of the FBI’s intelligence team and candidly informs Graver that she knows little about the leaders of the Mexican drug cartel. Her ability to be part of an assault team, and her lack of knowledge on the subject of drug cartels is what ends up getting her admitted to the interagency task force. The audience, like Kate, proceeds through the film not knowing why certain actions are being taken, and taking Kate’s superiors at their word when they explain to her why certain decisions are made. There is rarely a scene in this film that does not include Kate through the majority of the film, and it is only near the end of the film when the audience finally sees what the true intent of the task force was. We watch Kate as she makes her way through the story, watching her become frustrated, upset, and angry. We watch her become defiant and we watch her become defeated when she realizes how small she is in relation to the war itself. In this sense, the movie is very much like The Deer Hunter or Saving Private Ryan. We experience the same conflict the character experiences and we watch the change that comes over Kate as the plot progresses. There is no question in the audience’s mind that Kate is not the same person at the end of the film as she was at the start, and it is the war that has changed her.

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Simultaneously, We are also presented with the more global story. For many parts of the film, though Kate is present, she is clueless as to what is happening or why she is there. During these scenes Alejandro and Matt are there to guide her and us. In one particularly disturbing scene, Kate is traveling through a Mexican city as part of a caravan. As the caravan moves through the city, naked and mutilated bodies are seen hanging in the open air. These are the victims of the drug war, as explained by Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), another member of the task force. As they drive by, Forsing tells Kate, “It’s brilliant what they do. When they mutilate a body like that, they make people think they must have been involved, they must have deserved such a death because they did something. Oh, it’s brilliant what they do.” Though this moment is not meant to develop Kate’s character. This scene is provided for the audience, to show both the audience and Kate that there are facets of the drug war that we have absolutely no knowledge of. there is another plot line in the film that is completely apart from Kate’s story, and it is the story of a Mexican family. The father is a cop, who drinks a bit, but clearly loves his son. The mother is a quiet person who takes care of the family in the home. The child is just a happy go lucky kid who loves playing soccer and wakes his father up every morning to get him breakfast and to get his father to come watch him play soccer. Until the very end, we do not understand why we are shown these scenes, but once the plot is finally laid bare before the audience, the reason becomes clear. The audience is again shown how far the horror of the drug war can spread. These are just a couple examples in a film that is littered with moments that are designed to present the war to us in its gruesome entirety, and it is in this way that the film brilliantly rides the center line between being a film about the trials and tribulations of a single character and a film about the full expanse of the drug war.

I cannot end this post without also commenting on the amazing directing of this film and the acting form the main ensemble. The director, Denis Villeneuve’s direction is absolutely brilliant. From the very first scene, where we see Kate and her team prepare to breach a house where an alleged kidnapper resides, an eeriness exists that we as the audience cannot shake for the rest of the film. The silence from the characters in the assault vehicle as they glare at each other, combined with the low rumbling music and the noise of the vehicle’s engine slowly rising, creates an anxiety in us that never truly leaves. Even in the final moments of the film we still feel anxious, uncertain of whether we are tense because of everything we have seen or tense because we keep waiting for a different ending. Villeneuve’s direction is near perfect in this sense, and it is elevated by the cast. In particular, Benicio Del Toro is the source of much anxiety.

We first meet Del Toro’s character on a private jet. Though he is sleeping, he is clearly troubled, eventually waking himself up by shouting. Alejandro is shown to be equal in his kindness to Kate as he is in his merciless brutality to those who stand in his way. As Kate’s defiance grows through the film, so does the audience’s belief that it is only a matter of time before Alejandro’s kindness will cease and she will have to face the monster that his enemies have come to know. The fact that Del Toro’s performance did not get him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor is one of the greatest travesties of this year’s Oscars. Next to his work in Che, this was one of Del Toro’s finest performances and it is unbelievable to me that it has gone so unrecognized.

I have done my best to avoid spoilers in this review, because I believe it is imperative that one see this movie with as little knowledge of the plot as possible, in order to be in the same position as Kate. I hope I was successful in this endeavor and did not reveal more than what was necessary for this review. I truly believe this film to be one of the best films of 2015 and urge everyone to see it. However, for those of you who need more to decide whether to see this film, here is the opening scene, which hooked me instantly when I first saw it.