Movie Reviews: Bridge of Spies and Crimson Peak

Tom Hanks in Spielberg's den of spies, Guillermo del Toro in a house of ghosts.

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Hanks
Hanks

Bridge of Spies reunites Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks for a tale of international espionage set at the height of the Cold War. Don't get your hopes up too high, though. This is an "adult" take on the spy genre—which is to say there's lots of talk and very little action. The soft-edged, shot-on-film cinematography is certainly handsome (Janusz Kaminski is back on the case, too) and the lead actors are very fine. John le Carré fans, however, might hear naptime calling as long stretches of this 141-minute film play out.

The story is drawn from historical events. It begins in 1957, with school kids across the land ducking under desks in A-bomb drills as the U.S. and the Soviet Union face off in an ever-mounting nuclear confrontation. Paranoia reigns. In near-wordless opening scenes set in Brooklyn, a mild-mannered Soviet spy chief named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), working undercover as an artist (which the real Abel actually was), makes his way to a dead drop where he retrieves a hollow coin from under a bench. The coin contains coded nuke secrets, which Abel intends to pass on to his KGB masters.

FBI agents swoop down and take Abel into custody. His conviction on the charges against him—which could carry the death penalty—is treated as a foregone conclusion. There is no presumption of innocence, and indeed Abel never disputes what he's been up to. ("You have men like me doing the same for your country," he later notes.) No one wants to defend this man, but when a New York insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Hanks) is approached about taking on Abel's case, he reluctantly agrees to do so. The state is determined to put Abel away, or better yet execute him. Donovan, however, argues that the manner of Abel's arrest raises serious Fourth Amendment issues. There's quite a bit of talk about that, as of course there should be, although maybe not in a movie that purports to be any kind of thriller.  

Donovan manages to save Abel from the death penalty, arguing that keeping him alive in prison might come in handy if the need ever arises to trade a Soviet operative for a captured American spy. This proves prescient. Jumping ahead to 1961 (the year le Carré's first novel introduced the iconic spymaster George Smiley), we find CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) being shot down over Russia in his top-secret—and supposedly invulnerable—U-2 surveillance plane. (This gripping sequence is masterfully conceived, and provides the movie's only real excitement.) Powers is convicted in a Soviet court and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

At about the same time, the Soviets are building a wall in Berlin to stanch the flow of Germans desperate to escape to the West. An American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) gets trapped behind the just-completed barrier, and is soon convicted of spying himself. When Donovan, who's been recruited to negotiate the trade of Abel for Powers, hears about this, he insists on making the freeing of Pryor a part of any deal to get Powers back. The CIA goons overseeing the operation are furious, but they're powerless to overrule Donovan, who as a civilian is beyond their command. 

The movie's script, by English playwright Matt Charman, was heavily massaged by Ethan and Joel Coen, and it lays out a lot of interesting information. When Donovan arrives in East Berlin to begin negotiating the release of Powers and Pryor in exchange for Abel, he finds himself actually negotiating a maze of bureaucratic duplicity. And there's a new hitch in the proposed spy swap: Powers is being held by the Soviets, but Pryor was arrested by the East Germans, who bitterly resent being under the boot of their Soviet occupiers, and are uninclined to cooperate in their prisoner exchange.

Hanks brings his usual amiable warmth to the part of Donovan, an idealistic American beset on all sides by liars and thugs. (It's a role James Stewart could have stepped right into.) The real star here, however, is Rylance, an acclaimed English stage actor, who plays Abel with quietly riveting wit. ("I'm not afraid to die," he tells Donovan, "although it wouldn't be my first choice.") It's too bad some of the other notable actors in the cast—especially Amy Ryan as Donovan's vaguely drawn wife and Jesse Plemons as one of Powers' fellow pilots—get so little screen time. On the other hand, Spielberg, filming in present-day, post-Wall Germany, is characteristically expert in evoking the ratty Berlin of more than 50 years ago, from Checkpoint Charlie to the Glienicke Bridge, over which Powers finally walks into freedom.

But the movie is often smothered by its heavy burden of talk. Here, comparison to le Carré is unavoidable, especially in regard to the two BBC miniseries made from his novels Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People. The author's extensive dialogue scenes have a tang of dark disillusionment that pulls you into the characters' shadowy agendas, and his own prisoner-exchange scene on a Berlin bridge has a low-key tension that is completely missing from the very similar sequence here. The issues raised in this movie are compelling, and naturally worthy of discussion. Whether or not we need to watch them being discussed is an issue of its own.       

Crimson Peak
Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro's tribute to old gothic-romance movies is a mad exercise in deluxe set decoration and lush costume design. Recreating the late-Victorian era, Crimson Peak is thick with velvet and lace, veils and cravats, and candles aglow in richly wood-paneled rooms. The movie is eye-filling beyond the call of overkill: the gloomy mansion in which most of the action takes place has a huge hole in its roof through which dead leaves and delicate snowflakes drift down upon the inhabitants. (Pelting rain might have been less lovely to look at.) It's all gorgeous, but after a while it becomes much too much of a good thing.

The movie is a ghost story, but despite a few bloody jolts, it's not really a horror story. There are some gruesome creatures in attendance (played by prosthetics star Doug Jones), but they're too familiar in conception (screamy mouths, skeletal fingers) to compete with the picture's sumptuous stylization and its hyper-romantic atmosphere. We're too entranced to be really scared.

Mia Wasikowska is Edith Cushing, an aspiring writer in turn-of-the-century Buffalo, New York. Edith much admires Mary Shelley, and also believes in ghosts (she's seen them). One day her prosperous father (Jim Beaver) is approached by a visiting Englishman, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has arrived along his chilly sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), on a quest for funds to build a "clay harvesting machine" he has invented. Mr. Cushing is unimpressed, and turns Sharpe away. (A big mistake, it quickly turns out.) Also leery of this slick interloper is Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), a young doctor who has long pined for Edith from afar. Edith herself, however, is more malleable, and in short order Sharpe marries her and returns with her and Lucille to his ancestral estate in the dreary north of England, with its above-mentioned manor house built atop an oozy clay pit.

Thomas's passion for Edith is real, but so is Lucille's steely hostility. (Among the old movies this one forthrightly resembles is Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 Rebecca, and Chastain is in full Mrs. Danvers mode here.) Ominous portents accrue, often keyed to the color red: a mysterious ruby ring, a dog's ball with a mind of its own. The molten clay that sometimes gushes up through the floorboards and stains the snow outside is also of an arterial hue. (The movie's wintry exteriors recall another film shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, the 2006 Silent Hill.)

If it need be said, there's something unsavory about Thomas and Lucille's relationship, clearly connected to the hideous phantasms that stalk the manor halls. As Edith pursues her suspicions, she comes across an alarming letter and a case-clinching wax phonograph cylinder. Wasikowska, with her waist-length straw-blonde hair and diaphanous nightgown, is a perfect Victorian victim (although entirely capable of wielding a meat cleaver when necessary); and Hiddleston deftly portrays a man torn between the woman he loves and God knows what else. Toro plays most of the gothic goings-on straight, but he also slips in touches of sly humor: when Lucille points out a painting on a manor wall—an enormous portrait of the siblings' departed mother—the woman pictured looks so poisonously stern that we can't help but laugh. Amid all this over-the-top gothic melodrama, it's nice to know the director is chuckling along with us.

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  1. I was looking forward to Bridge of Spies, but I’ve tried watching le Carre movies before, and the ones I remember not completing were the talky talky ones, no matter how good the cast and crew. I don’t ask for James Bond, but I do get tired of long silent periods and even longer talky talky periods. It’s like a book which would have been fine as a short story, but someone thought it could be “fleshed out”, and was ruined by all the padding.

    1. I know what you mean. Watching “Tinker Tailor” or “Smiley’s People” today — movies made more than 30 years ago — we naturally squirm a bit at the deliberate pacing of a less revved-up age. I think many people have this response to a lot of other old films as well. Still, I don’t think the quicker, more compressed version of “Tinker” released in 2011 comes anywhere near surpassing the original BBC version, which of course had Alec Guinness….

  2. It’s hard to build a sense of tension at the bridge exchange when the East Germans are armed with walkie-talkies.

  3. I just got back from Bridge of Spies and liked it. Spielberg and Hanks play well together.

    Action movie it’s not, but the plot accurately portrays a time when every side (there were way more than three) was wound so tight one of le Carre’s car chases would have ended in Mutual Assured Destruction. It also showed an older time when the attitude was “It’s war, screw the Constitution.”

    The Friday matinee audience applauded. Well worth a theater viewing, and renting it when it comes out.

    Of course it could be that I remember those days.

    And guards don’t need AK-47s when snipers overwatch both sides.

    1. “…screw the Constitution.” means screw rights, screw The American Dream. But that is so ironic because the Constitution, except for its preamble, The Declaration of Independence, does not embrace rights without contradiction, which makes it heavily flawed.

      I too was reminded of the “duck & cover” propaganda that gave me nightmares for three days. To be terrorized by so-called protectors with lies in order to paralyze with fear making control easier, does not endear me to authoritarianism. But I overcame the fear and figured out their obscene gambit. Most do not. They submit. They grovel and mumble, “Well, if it makes me safer, I can do without my rights.” (Better enslaved, than dead.?) How about: Better see the enslavers dead!

  4. “Powers is convicted in a Soviet court and sentenced to 10 years in prison.”
    Editor: This sentence appears twice in the item about the Hanks film.

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  6. Kurt tells us: “Don’t get your hopes up…lots of talk and very little action.” Well, unlike the flood of action movies aimed at the intellectual level of a 10 year old, this drama does require the ability to listen, think, and make value judgements, if you want to understand the point of the movie. I enjoyed the mental effort, but I am not like those who believe thinking is not fun, and movies should be mindless passive viewing, e.g., “…the movie is often smothered by its heavy burden of talk.” Yes, presenting complex moral choices in the face of a world obsessed with violence requires words to convey concepts. And that gives some a headache, or confuses some, or is too adult. All films shouldn’t be dumbed down to appeal to the immature mind.

    Unlike Kurt, I found the most exciting moment the test of wills on the bridge, the will to “stand tall” when threatened by thugs on all sides, US, USSR, East German. In that moment, both Donovan and Abel stand out as moral giants. That was a moral lesson lost on the person who titled the movie “Bridges of Spies” instead of “Standing Man”.

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  9. nice movie !

  10. Just watched it at tinyurl.com/bridge-of-spies-2015-hd-720 in GREAT HD Quality! Enjoy

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