Bridge of Spies

BridgeDirector: Steven Spielberg

Screenwriters: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemons, and Austin Stowell

Recently Tom Hanks went on The Tonight Show and did a Kid Theater skit where he performed scripts written by elementary school kids who were told to write a scene for a movie called Bridge of Spies.  Most of them involved either a bridge made of spies or spies on a bridge.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the climax of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies and a group of spies met on a bridge.  This is no slight on the actual film’s screenplay as the scene is actually quite riveting, but more a testament to this film’s transparent nature in that what you see is what you get – quite rare for a “spy” film.

This is the fourth pairing of Steven Spielberg as director and Tom Hanks as actor.  Each film they’ve done together has been a period piece of sorts with a true story at its core.  Bridge of Spies is no exception.  In it, Hanks plays James Donovan, a partner in a successful New York insurance law firm at the height of the Cold War.  When a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the FBI, Donovan is recruited to provide a “credible defense” in a trial designed to railroad this spy right to the electric chair.  Donovan’s duty as an American trumps his hesitation for taking a losing battle and he agrees to take the case.  From this point on, Spielberg’s film ceases to be a “did he or didn’t he” film (he did), and begins a fascinating exploration into the murkiness, hypocrisy, and complexity of espionage during one of American history’s most turbulent periods.  Abel is not depicted as an enemy but as a cautious, thoughtful man doing an important job for his country in a time of unrest.  His story is paralleled by another depicting the training and deployment of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U-2 pilot for the CIA who is later shot down in his spy plane over Russia.  In the wrong hands, these stories could come across as preachy or downright absurd, but thankfully the Coen brothers crafted the screenplay and tell an intelligent story about perspective rather than a heroic tale of valor.  In one early scene, Donovan is seen discussing one of his client’s responsibilities for paying a claim to a victim who wants five times the settlement because a driver ran into five motorcycle drivers.  Donovan goes on to explain that to the victim five things happened but according to the insurance policy, one thing happened.  This conversation holds new meaning when Donovan’s life as one type of lawyer leads him to act as an entirely different type of lawyer and that two sides of a seemingly black and white conflict are actually one.

Powers’s and Abel’s stories converge with a prisoner exchange plot that holds Donovan firmly in the middle.  Hanks embodies Donovan’s struggle with great appeal.  He is born to play roles like this and Spielberg knows it.  In fact, Spielberg’s cinematic voice has been diminished lately by the enormous shadow cast by his actors and screenwriters.  With Lincoln it felt like Spielberg simply had to put the camera on a tripod and let Daniel Day-Lewis have his way with Tony Kushner’s script.  The same formula is at work with Bridge of Spies.  Spielberg is certainly gifted at his attention to detail as this film drips with authenticity, and some of his transitions are enlightened and stark, but ultimately this film’s success rests on Hanks and the screenwriting of Charman and the Coens.  Also, Rylance’s subdued performance as Abel is understated but pivotal. Several times throughout the movie, he is relegated to utter the schmaltzy phrase, “would it help?” as a little inside joke between Donovan and himself, but it works every time.

Furthermore, Bridge of Spies follows some conventional storytelling arcs, but the spy genre is not one easily transformed.  The key to Bridge’s success is that its agenda is not to trick the audience but rather to let us hold all of the cards and experience the weight of each decision that is made.  That along with some brilliant set-pieces, scenery, and top notch performances from Hanks and Rylance allow Bridge of Spies to work very well.  B+

Bridge of Spies is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.

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Shot from The Martian

The Martian

Martian PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Screenwriter: Drew Goddard

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jeff Daniels

Quite honestly, if you have seen Apollo 13, Cast Away, Interstellar, or The Right Stuff, then ironically, The Martian, the new film from Ridley Scott about an astronaut left behind by his crew on Mars, treads no new territory.  That being said, why did we all love those movies if they basically explored the same things?  The answer is that we have an insatiable appetite for watching humankind’s intelligence put to the test.  When The Martian is over, that is the piece that stays with you, not the performances or even the directing, but the way human intellect is pooled to solve unsolvable problems!

The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA botanist who is part of a six-person, 31-day mission to explore the surface of Mars.  When an unexpected dust storm escalates with no warning, Watney is struck by debris, disabling his spacesuit’s communication device and forcing his crew to assume he has been killed.  With the storm jeopardizing the integrity of their ship, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough call to evacuate the planet early and consequently leave Watney’s body behind.  Now as Lewis and her crew begin the 10-month journey back to Earth, Watney awakens from being struck unconscious to discover that he is alone on a dessert planet 34 million miles from Earth and potentially years from being rescued, and that is if he can somehow communicate to NASA that he is not dead.

For a film with such a discouraging scenario at its heart, The Martian is extremely upbeat thanks to a terrific performance by Matt Damon who masterfully captures the brilliance of Andy Weir’s original character from his novel of the same name.  Damon displays a resourcefulness, wit, and spirit with his portrayal of Watney, and it reminds us all of the importance of “mindset.”  A film that could so easily present a protagonist’s slow dissent into madness at the mercy of isolation is instead wisely turned on its head early on when Watney declares, “I will not die here.”  Whether or not this declaration becomes fact remains to be seen, but this decision to persevere is precisely why this film is such a joy to watch and not a test of our sensibilities.  Watney’s decision to live comes with the caveat of finding a way to survive for an indeterminate amount of time on a planet with no atmosphere, extreme temperatures, and no food or water source.  It is endlessly fascinating to watch Watney work his way through these dilemmas and according to director Ridley Scott, NASA validates nearly all of the survival methods Watney employs in this film.

It is no spoiler to reveal that Watney does eventually manage to contact Earth and establish that he is alive, creating a new element of tension as the film evolves from a survival film (like Gravity) to one that introduces the concept of rescue.  As exciting as it is to examine the power of the individual in films like Gravity and Cast Away, The Martian introduces a type of global effort that can be assembled when the people of Earth put aside their differences and work together on a common goal.  Consequently, like Apollo 13, The Martian wisely balances the space scenes with others that show the ingenuity and frustration of the scientists on Earth as they try to develop some kind of plan to save Watney.  That being said, a simple glance at the promotional poster for The Martian clearly demonstrates that this film was developed as a vehicle for Damon, but there are many other big names in this movie and boy are they wasted.  Michael Peña, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean and others all share about 20% of the running time and don’t get to do very much.  This is slightly disappointing especially when one thinks back to Ed Harris and Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 and realizes how powerful these roles could have been with some slight refocusing.

With Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and soon Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we are firmly in the midst of a science-fiction renaissance.  While box office has plenty to do with this current fad, what makes these films most enticing to the big name directors is their opportunity to dazzle us visually.  I saw The Martian in 3-D, which I normally avoid.  I still believe that 3-D releases are nothing more than a way to make you pay an extra few dollars for a ticket, but I will admit that Ridley Scott has crafted a beautiful and exciting film with The Martian that does use the technology to immerse the audience in the experience better than most.

The Martian is everything you want in a big budget, exciting, tense blockbuster.  It is entertaining, researched, and impressive.  Still, while it features brilliant people doing brilliant things, The Martian does all of the heavy lifting.  It would have been nice to walk away with a little bit more to think about, but it does let you walk out with plenty to celebrate, and that is good too. A-

The Martian is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.