Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

27 October 2015

Generic Title (Bridge of Spies)

A (sober) conversation with my friends Chris and Walter about Spielberg's new movie Bridge of Spies. This does contain spoilers, so be forewarned. Still, none of us recommends this movie, so you can probably just keep reading and then skip the film.

Walt: Ok fellas, I'm off to see Bridge of Spies. Wish me luck.
Chris: Stay strong.
Walt: Let me just say that I am the youngest one here.
Chris: Off to a good start.
Aaron: I just got out of the movie.
Chris: Initial thoughts?
Aaron: It was boring.
Chris: Agreed.

Aaron: What was this movie about? America and stuff, right? Principles? Doing the right thing? I don't mind a movie about all of those things, really, but I think what bugged me about this movie was something I kept puzzling over the whole time it was going on. What kind of movie is this? Is Bridge of Spies supposed to be a character study? It certainly isn't one; we know nothing of the main character except that he is a kind of symbol for "American values" and "giving a guy fair shake" and that sort of thing. We literally get only one little flash that there might be something else to his character in that little moment when he says that the Yale kid is the same age as someone else (no one follows up on this little red herring, but it is some indication of this character's humanity). But then if the movie isn't about this character, then it is a movie about plot, which means this is supposed to be a kind of suspense movie! If it is, then why is it so slow? There are all of these ponderous scenes where characters philosophize about the right thing to do, but where is the suspense??

Chris: So this is basically a heroic tale of human compassion, right? Mark Rylance has this line in the holding cell where asks for a pen and paper to sketch with. Hanks denies him and Rylance responds with something to the extent of "You would want your man to be treated just the same over there, right?" – cut to soft-focus close up of Hanks trying his best.

Walt: It was a parable or something. Or something.

Chris: The trailer wants us to think it's a thriller and at the very top (the opening sequence with Rylance being pursued) I was totally on board with that. But then this goes away and I wasn't sure what was left in its place. The plane sequence was pretty great; wish there was more of that. Something that my buddy Joey brought up was that we never get a chance to really care about the Hanks/Rylance relationship, because we spend so little time with them together. This caused the final bridge scene to fall flat since it was hard to care about them as much as the movie wanted us to. 

Hanks is feeling a little bloated
Walt: I think I just watched three different movies (or maybe I’m just responding to the three endings). At some point we’re in the one of the Berlins and I’m like “this is the same movie? But I thought Alan Alda…” Ugh, it was so bloated. I feel like Spielberg used to be so tight and now he’s become so much more ponderous. A year or two after The Color Purple, he called the it “the most grown up film I’ve made”. And if I think about it, all of his grown up films are bloated. So maybe it's not about where he is in his career so much as it is that he think grown up films should be bloated. Really, though, the movie kind of wanders. I remember watching an interview with him in the '90s talking about how he has this group that he screens his films with (I’m guessing Scorsese, Coppola, yadda yadda yadda). What the hell kind of notes are they giving him, anyway?

Aaron: And I wonder about the novel, actually, because there are really three plotlines – this had to have been cleaner in the novel, and it certainly could've been written more cleanly for the screenplay.

Walt: I didn't know that it was originally a novel. That makes sense. I don't think the adaptation is very strong. This thing should’ve been an hour on the history channel, not a Hollywood film. Seriously, why did anyone make this movie? What do we need it for right now? Spielberg reminds me of my dad in a way: he still thinks we should hate the Russians and that Castro is public enemy #1. This movie hated Russians. And Amy Ryan. They must hate her, to give such a great actress such an impossible and ultimately meaningless role. All she does is complain, right to end, when he doesn’t bring back that sweet sweet British marmalade. Imagine Odysseus returns home, saves Penelope from all the suitors and she just complains about how he didn’t bring back one of those amazing Trojan rugs! Also, what’s with Tom Hank’s son? Why is there even one scene with him? And what about the humor? All those jokes stood out like a sore thumb.

The camera loves Amy Ryan but this movie doesn't.
Aaron: I love your note that it is three different movies. But for me this is both a screenplay problem and a direction problem. There are so many little jokes. Spielberg can't help himself with these little bits of silliness. It baffles me. I'm thinking of that chief prosecutor in the GDR picking up the wrong telephone. Ha ha. And the little trick that Hanks plays on the assistant who is dating his daughter. What a prankster! And when that little joke comes back to bite him when the assistant spills the truth to Amy Ryan I actually laughed out loud. I thought this was quite a comical sequence. But this has nothing to do with the rest of the film in either its plot or its tone. It is very early in the film, and is, I presumed, designed to set the tone for what we're watching, but it's so comic that the tone it set confused the rest of the movie.

Chris: Oh yeah, that assistant... what happened to his plot line/why was he in the movie? For the joke?

Aaron: You are so right about the stuff with Hanks' son. Who cares. Maybe it is supposed to contrast with that final moment on the train? "American kids used to live in terror and sleep with their bathtubs full, but now they happily scamper over the fences of their neighbors so that they can more quickly get to the orange juice in Mrs. Thompson's icebox."

Walt: I don’t see a strong enough connection between the kid in the bathtub and the kids jumping the fence, but I had other things on my mind when that was happening. Yeah, his kid meant nothing.  When he’s deciding on whether to handle the negotiation and who does the pilot remind him of?  Some older kid that works for him that he’s not even related to!

* * *

Walt: But anyway, it’s about the power of the everyman or something. A guy realizes how awesome his life is or how awesome it could be, maybe. Like Joe vs. the Volcano, except the volcano is just a bunch of shitty people he has to wade through. Tom Hanks had a cold in that one, too, except he got better as the movie went on. Maybe that’s the difference between comedy and drama? The cold gets worse in drama. Oh my god. He had a cold. I kept wondering about that in the movie, but it just hit me. Cold. Cold War? Oh my god, I bet that’s it. Like they read a Syd Field screenplay book and got to the section where they suggest you give the character a physical marker à la Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (Jake is nosey so his nose gets cut) and thought “oooh, we should do that for Tom, too! I mean, it’s the Cold War, amiright, Stevie?”

Chris: Worst bit: That old woman on the train. She notices Hanks and scowls at him (you know, because he's defending a traitor). Then weeks later she happens to be on the same train car with him, but this time smiles because he did good job. Steven, we get it.

Walt: Oh my god, that woman on the train. She smiles for an awfully long while, doesn’t she? That’s bad train etiquette, even in an age where you didn’t have to lock your doors at night. Also, what about when Tom Hanks is looking out the subway window down onto the Brooklyn streets and is most likely thinking "god, I’m glad we’re not Russian"?

Aaron: Can we talk a little about Tom Hanks's acting in this? I kept looking at him in this picture and I just don't get it. What is he doing?

Tom Hanks is a little lost.
Walt: I don’t know what to say about Tom Hanks. I love him. I miss him, actually, but not enough that I want him back yet. He should hang out for a while. Thanks to TBS, he’ll never really go away, anyway. They basically just alternate screenings of Big and You’ve Got Mail. I mean, he was fine, he really was. But just because he’s our Jimmy Stewart doesn’t mean he has to take roles that they can’t offer Jimmy Stewart anymore. 

Chris: Hanks was not bad, but forgettable. I thought he was fantastic in that Captain Phillips movie and had high hopes for this. I will say he was a great casting choice, as was everyone. Rylance was fantastic but we didn't get enough!

Aaron: I thought Mark Rylance was great, and I also really liked Peter McRobbie (who plays some sort of higher-up dude in the CIA), and I also thought Sebastian Koch was perfectly cast and he was probably my favorite thing in the whole film. He was so good.

Walt: I enjoyed Mark Rylance. I’ve seen some clips of him doing Shakespeare and one of his funny Tony acceptance speeches, but that’s about it. I found him a bit too adorable, though. Wasn’t there something about him that was just kind cute? With that “would it help?” catchphrase? What a darling. I loved the KGB guy (Mikhail Gorevoy) and Sebastian Koch as well. In a movie that tried so hard to make everything look so dangerous, the danger he presented felt authentic to me.

* * *

Chris: Positive thoughts: Cinematically, it was everything we've come to expect from Spielberg. Just beautiful to watch with great attention to detail. Really lovely.

Walt: You’re right: it was beautifully shot. Spielberg is a master at conventional visual storytelling. That shot of Hanks on the bridge in the 1st ending was breathtaking. I thought the film should’ve ended there.

Aaron: Yeah, it surprises me that you guys thought it was well shot. The whole thing looked simultaneously washed out and milky to me. All of that bright, hazy sun pouring through the windows (this was especially annoying when we were in the chief prosecutor's office at the GDR). I don't understand Kaminski's style anymore. What is the point of bleaching all of the color out of every shot? 

The milky glow of sunlight beatifying our star
Walt: I agree with you that the lighting exposure in a lot of the film didn’t really work, but I’ll still defend the visual storytelling.  Little things, really, like the reveal of all the policeman in front of Tom Hanks' house. A lot of other directors would have shown all those police cars at the beginning of the scene to establish the tension, but Spielberg holds that off and waits until after he’s confronted by the single policeman to reveal what looks to be the entire precinct out there. Before that reveal Hanks and the policeman are on equal ground, but after, we see that Hanks’ character is all alone in this. I’ll also stand behind that beautiful shot of Hanks on the bridge in the first ending. However, I will not stand behind the several shots of using window panes as a literal framing device.

Chris: To be fair, the dismal/it's really cold look with the saturated color scheme was effective. Russia looked terrible and I wanted to put on another coat. Then we get a nice sepia tone for the pilot plot because we're going back in time. Haha.

Walt: Oh man, and what about how the Supreme Court glowed like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude? Spielberg really loves the America. And the 50s. I didn’t mean to write the “the” in “the America”, but it actually seems right somehow. 

Aaron: But I don't think it is fair to say that Spielberg loves the 1950s any more than any of the cohort that he came of age with - Lucas and Barry Levinson and Zemeckis and Coppola all love the 1950s. It was an important time for them. "When men were men" or maybe "when ethical questions meant something" or something like that. The movie does try to deal with those things. As much as Spielberg loves the U.S. – and that absurd shot at the end where Hanks is glad he's not a Soviet is evidence of that – the  movie can't help but notice that the Americans themselves are just as bad as the Soviets and the East Germans at several points. Note Hanks' crack about his East German prison cell being no better than his digs in West Germany. And then there was that crusty old judge and his total railroading of American justice, and the CIA's attempts to get Hanks to violate attorney-client privilege. The movie can't help but show us that Americans are no more a just group of people than the East Berliners or the Soviets. For all its highmindedness about the Constitution and liberty and all of that, the soldiers at the end are still dishonorable assholes to that kid who got shot down over Soviet territory and managed not to talk even though he was tortured. Bridge of Spies believes that the American people are, in truth, just as bad as Soviets and East Germans; we just have better laws over here.

Mark Rylance being adorable.
Walt: Oh man, I totally kept cracking to myself “when men were men” during this movie.  And you’re right too, that the movie includes Americans in the shitty people/volcano that Tom Hanks has to fight (I thought of Lionel Barrymore a lot when watching that cranky judge. Doesn’t that judge belong in a holiday movie about a guy who doesn’t believe reindeer can fly or something?). Perhaps Spielberg is wrestling with the idea that while he was having his American Graffiti moment there were all kinds of assholes pulling strings at the highest level. But do we need this movie for that? Or this story?

 * * *

Walt: Was anyone else struck by Tom Hank’s color palette at the end of the film?  He’s passed out on the bed wearing a charcoal gray suit with a dark red sweater poking out the sleeve.  Does he come back from East Berlin a lil’ bit Communist?  Does it signify Mark Rylance’s last impact on him?

Aaron: I didn't notice a change in his color palette when he returned. Perhaps that was further evidence of that never-ending cold??

Walt: Also, why go through the bit at the end where Rylance mentions that if the Russians don’t embrace him upon his release at the end it will signify his death only to tell us in the credits that nope, never mind, he didn’t die actually?

Aaron: That Mark-Rylance-doesn't-die bit was so Steven Spielberg - a habit he has that is just as marked as his multiple endings. Create tension and make something seem really scary, and then show us that we had nothing to be worried about after all. It happened when the CIA guy followed him in act one, as well. That guy seemed really dangerous, but turns out he was able to be defeated simply by a few snide remarks about American values and some nonchalant snacking on an almond or two. I kept hoping Rylance would get shot on the bridge itself by those snipers. I know that's terrible, but this movie needed some actual stakes, and then all of that tension would have actually had a payoff.

Walt: I fully expected him to get shot. Otherwise, oooooo snipers.  Better watch out, cause, y’know, they might… let you know if someone’s coming or something.

Chris: This was a true event right? So there's boundaries.  I assume Rylance's character didn't get shot on the bridge - then again maybe that whole scene didn't actually happen on a bridge. I don't know.

Hanks on the eponymous bridge
Walt: It had to happen on a bridge, otherwise no title. The bridge was so inconsequential to the film though. What’s the bridge of spies? Is it East Berlin? Tom Hanks? The actual bridge? It works on many levels, but so little is made of the actual bridge that there’s nothing concrete to tie it to. I’m just generally confused. About why the movie was made and what we’re supposed to get from it. I’m sure Spielberg’s great uncle loved it. It felt like a movie that a great uncle would tell his filmmaker nephew that he should make. “Now THAT would be real story.  None of this treasure-hunting crap. You wanna talk about danger?  When I was in Berlin…” 

Aaron: I am not actually sure how I stayed awake.

Chris: So why are people giving so much love to this movie? Is it palpable to today's attitudes towards war?  The paranoia factor? Are people just suckers for Spielberg? The shot that rings most true for me was the Germans getting shot down climbing the wall: that demonstrated the terror of the entire situation for me. That "oh shit" moment. Then Steven screwed it up by having American kids climbing over a fence at the end.

 * * *

Aaron: I am not really a Spielberg fan or a Hanks fan, so I don't have the same kind of affection or emotional attachment to these Hollywood icons that the two of you do, but to me this kind of "prestige picture"/Oscar-bait garbage that Spielberg makes is completely uninteresting. It reminds me of the sort of old-school Clifford Odets-style of writing: a kind of writing that makes itself look very important but actually doesn't say anything at all; it simply pretends to be serious. I think Spielberg should stick to genre pictures.

Walt:  I love Spielberg and I love Hanks, but I’m over their being paired together. I’ve heard that Spielberg thinks Hollywood is broken, though he and his “cohorts” as you called them, namely Lucas, were really behind the breaking. Now he’s trying to make up for it by being a grown-up, except it feels like a 14-year-old’s version of what being a grown-up is. Not that “being grown up” really means anything anyway, but Spielberg seems to think it does, and who better to cast in a grown up movie than Tom “American Dad” Hanks. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do about either of them as a fan of theirs.  I just want them both to go away. Like Star Wars. Just go away so that I can be glad to see them again. 

Chris: If I had to rate this movie with a facial expression, it would be the one that old lady made on the train. Mildly disapproving with a touch of confusion.