AS an American lawyer tasked with defending a Soviet spy, the actor goes into “full James Stewart mode” in this taut, true espionage drama. Alistair Harkness also reviews Black Mass, Carol, The Good Dinosaur and Radiator
Bridge of Spies (12A) | Rating: **** | Directed by Steven Spielberg | Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons
Steven Spielberg’s last couple of forays into the past – Lincoln and War Horse – suggested the world’s most successful director was on a mission to make historical dramas that belonged in museums. With Bridge of Spies, however, he’s recaptured some of the vitality present in much of his output from the late 1990s/early 2000s. That’s a good thing. When not in pure popcorn mode Spielberg is always much better making historical films with a modern sensibility, not evoking the era by making the films themselves old fashioned. Delving into the story behind a spy exchange that took place between the Americans and the Soviets in East Berlin in 1962, Bridge of Spies may have some old fashioned elements, but in keeping with the espionage theme, they’re a cover for what’s really going on.
Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen (reworking a script by Matt Charman), this is a film about the Cold War that’s light on its feet without being glib, and poignant without feeling too worthy or self-consciously important. At its heart is the story of James B Donovan (Tom Hanks), the lawyer called in to negotiate the release of American pilot Francis Gary Powers after he was shot down while running reconnaissance missions over Soviet airspace in the then-new U-2 spy plane. Donovan is not a seasoned hostage negotiator; he’s an insurance lawyer whose career has taken a bit of a knock for defending a Soviet spy arrested several years earlier in New York. The first part of the film is about the earlier case and proves thoroughly compelling – not only in terms of the ethical issues it raises about the American justice system, but also in the way Spielberg shoots it.
Opening the film with a sting operation in which said spy, Rudolf Abel, is arrested, Spielberg delights in showing the primitive spycraft of the time as Abel outmanoeuvres a dozen agents before being picked up in the Brooklyn studio in which he paints portraits in between transmitting secrets. Played by a magnificent Mark Rylance, who brings his customary stillness to a character who knows that worrying about his fate won’t help his situation, Abel’s participation in espionage is never in question. What is in question is the degree to which he will get a fair trial, which is where Hanks’s Donovan comes in.
An unwavering believer in the sanctity of the Constitution (Hanks is in full James Stewart mode here), he’s asked to defend Abel on behalf of his firm as a favour to the American government, which understands the importance of appearing to treat prisoners in a humane way given they’re trying to strike an ideological blow against Communism. Trouble is, when it comes to the security of the nation in times of heightened unrest, the authorities and the public don’t want this system to be too effective, so when Donovan not only agrees to defend Abel, but does such a sterling job he almost gets the case thrown out, he becomes a much hated figure and soon finds his career stalling and his family on the receiving end of death threats.
You don’t have to look very far for contemporary parallels here, but Spielberg doesn’t milk them, instead getting down to the business of the second half of the film in which the US government recruits Donovan to negotiate the trade of Abel for Powers. This negotiation is complicated by the fact that Donovan doesn’t want to do a straight swap, but a double swap, using Abel as a bargaining chip to secure the release of not just Powers, but also an American student, Frederic L Pryor, who has ended up on the wrong side of the Berlin wall – the construction of which Spielberg shows in a moment that’s horrifying precisely for how arbitrary and mundane it seems.
The remainder of the film is a tense series of frustrations and trade-offs as Donovan – working unofficially so the US can have complete deniability – repeatedly argues his case to the Soviets, the East Germans (who have an agenda of their own) and his own government. Further complexities arise thanks to the contempt in which the US holds Powers, who was instructed to destroy the plane and take cyanide should he ever be shot down. He’s unlikely to receive a hero’s welcome should Donovan be successful, which of course is likely to be true of Abel too, whom we come to admire on account of Donovan’s respect for Abel’s conduct in doing the job he was asked to do.
And that’s the crux of the film. Throughout, Spielberg is really questioning the degree to which it’s possible to defend a value system when those values are constantly being eroded to secure it. Sadly there’s nothing old fashioned about that.
The Good Dinosaur (U) | Rating: *** | Directed by: Peter Sohn | Voices: Raymond Ochoa, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright
Pixar movies don’t always have the smoothest of journeys to the big screen. Ratatouille and the Toy Story sequels underwent major fixes once production had started and turned out pretty damn well, so the fact that The Good Dinosaur was delayed for 18 months while the script was rewritten, the director was changed and much of the voice cast was replaced shouldn’t automatically be taken as a sign that the finished film is below par. Indeed there’s much to love about this story of a fearful young dinosaur befriending a feral human boy, not least for young kids, who will doubtless be delighted by that central pairing, which resembles a boy-and-his-dog story with the roles reversed (the kid even answers to the name of Spot).
Arriving in cinemas just a few months after the wondrous Inside Out, however, it does feel like a step back in time, and not just because of its prehistoric setting. For an original story it feels somehow less ambitious, the narrative leaps we’ve come to associate with the studio’s output not quite as mind-blowing or as ingeniously executed. Which isn’t to say they’re not amusingly done. Kicking off with a lovely visual gag that shows the asteroid that was supposed to wipe out the dinosaurs missing Earth altogether, the film flashes forward a few million years to the point where dinosaurs have evolved the power of speech and learned basic farming skills.
It’s here we find the film’s hero, Arlo, an Apatosaurus living with his parents and siblings on a homestead that has to be worked hard if they’re
to have enough food for the winter. Arlo, however, is a timid soul whose fear of the larger world means he’s unable to pull his weight, a character flaw that’s of increasing concern to his father (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) whose determination to help Arlo “make his mark” results in a Lion King-style family tragedy that eventually leaves Arlo stranded down river, far from home, with only a wild boy he comes to name Spot for company.
Spot is a ball of grunting energy and the film’s decision to have the dinosaurs talk rather than the humans puts a nice spin on this kind of interspecies relationship, forcing them to learn about each other through actions not words (there’s an amusing bonding moment over some hallucinogenic fruit). It’s just a shame that the film doesn’t really go anywhere special. The animation may be as gorgeous and boundary-pushing as ever, but heavy handed messages about family and finding courage deep within are laid on pretty thick.
In the end this is film about making a mark that isn’t able to make one of its own.
Black Mass (15) | Rating: **** | Directed by Scott Cooper | Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson
Johnny Depp has been coasting of late, but he really sinks his teeth into Scott Cooper’s drama about notorious South Boston gangster and FBI informant James “Whitey” Bulger. Transforming himself physically and emotionally to play Bulger, Depp subverts his oddball appeal to be menacing in a seductive way, floating around the 1970s/1980s setting like a gangster vampire, sucking the life out of the city he professes to love by exploiting his deal with the FBI to conduct his myriad (and often murderous) criminal enterprises with impunity. Negotiating familiar cinematic material, the film does a good job of zeroing in on Whitey’s mystique and the appeal it held for John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), the decorated FBI agent who grew up in the same neighbourhood as Whitey and brought him into the fold to help take down the Italian mafia – a course of action that succeeded in its first aim, but also elevated Bulger from smalltime hood to major criminal. It’s this that makes Black Mass a worthwhile addition to the gangster genre. More than just a performance showcase for Depp (and Edgerton), the film really gets into the complexities of how crime works, showing how its cancerous form is able to spread in a society that’s toxic from the top down.
Carol (15) | Rating: **** | Directed by Todd Haynes | Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson
Scratch beneath the surface of Todd Haynes’s ultra-classy 1950s love story about a New York shop assistant (Rooney Mara) who falls for a married woman and there’s a distinct crime movie element to it. That’s perhaps unsurprising. Not only is it based upon a Patricia Highsmith novel (no stranger to skullduggery), but period attitudes to homosexuality would made those involved in same-sex relationships at the time feel persecuted as a matter of course. Beyond the sexuality-related issues the setting throws up, however, the film’s power really derives from the way it conveys how falling deeply in love can feel like a criminal act regardless of sexual orientation: the irrational-seeming machinations are oddly similar. This also helps the film – which is sumptuously designed, subtly written and superbly acted – transcend the strictures of its awards-friendly status. Whichever way you slice it, it’s simply fine filmmaking.
Radiator (15) | Rating: *** | Directed by Tom Browne | Starring Richard Johnson, Gemma Jones
Writer/director Tom Browne based this drama about a middle-aged son’s fraught relationship with his elderly parents on personal experience, which gives this desperately sad and discomfiting film a very lived-in feel, in part because the squalid Cumbrian cottage in which the cantankerous Leonard (played by the late Richard Johnson) lives belonged – along with the mess – to Browne’s own parents. In the film, life has got away from Leonard, who lies around in his own urine and faeces, barking orders at his long-suffering wife Mariah (Gemma Jones), who has politely requested her son’s help in dealing with him. Reluctantly facing up to un-asked-for responsibilities, schoolteacher Daniel (Daniel Cerqueira, the film’s co-writer) finds himself struggling to evoke the necessary compassion towards his parents. What follows is often tough to watch, but it’s an honest look at ageing, our fear of it, and how easy it is to let bad memories blind us to the good stuff that that’s still there.