Bridge of Spies (2015) Spielberg’s Cold War Epic (Fail)

Bridge of Spies

Before anyone’s going to tell me that I should have known better, I’ll admit it right away—Yes, I should have known better and not even bothered watching Bridge of Spies. It had everything I don’t like about some Spielberg movies: length, sentimentality, hokeyness and Tom Hanks. So, why watch it? You know, it could have been good. Every once in a while Spielberg produces something really decent. And I’ve seen films with Tom Hanks I liked (Saving Private Ryan, Philadelphia, Road to Perdition). And since it was based on true events, I thought it would at least be interesting. And it was.  If only they had cut at least half an hour. And abstained from a super-corny ending.

So, what’s it about. Tom Hanks is an American lawyer, Donovan, who is hired to defend a Russian spy. The US want to make sure that they are perceived as just and fair. Donovan is a lawyer who has no experience in criminal law, nonetheless, he’s giving his best, which isn’t wanted. He soon finds out that no matter how good his defence is, he will never get his client free as the verdict’s been agreed upon a long time ago. It’s a bogus trial.

Donovan is one of those typical Spielberg characters who rise above themselves when they see injustice and don’t shy away from putting themselves in danger. While he isn’t able to free the spy, he’s able to avoid the death penalty and he’s clever enough to make the authorities understand that a Russian spy, if left alive, could come in handy. And he’s right. Very soon they will be able to use the spy to free one of their own.

So far, I liked the movie but then comes the second part, in which Donovan is hired by the CIA to arrange the exchange of Rudolf Abel against a captured American pilot, Francis Gary Powers, whose U2 spy plane was shot down during a mission over Russia.

Donovan is sent to East Berlin to arrange the exchange. It’s 1961 and the wall has just been built. During those chaotic days, an American student is captured because he’s suspected to be a spy. Donovan hears of this and during the second part of the movie, we see him negotiate with the Russians and the Eastern Germans to exchange Abel against both Americans.

The second half of the movie suffered from terrible lengths. The filmmakers tried to make it gripping, accentuating how dangerous the territory was, but they didn’t succeed because the discussions between the involved parties were stiff and slow and full of clichés. I was tempted to fast-forward.

The hardest part to watch was the ending. It was just so painfully corny. There’s a scene at the beginning of the movie, in which a woman on a train looks scornfully at Donovan because he defends a Russian spy. The very same woman can be seen looking at him with great admiration and gratefulness at the end. These are the kind of corny, sentimental scenes that make me shudder.

As I said before, I’m not that keen on Tom Hanks or Spielberg but they have both done great, or at least entertaining movies. This wasn’t one of them.

Meanwhile, I’ve done some digging and it doesn’t even look as if the movie was historically accurate.

Have you seen it? Did you like it?

 

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Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun

I’ve read J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and in his afterword he mentions his childhood in China, which reminded me that I still hadn’t watched Empire of the Sun, which is based on his childhood experiences.

Empire of the Sun is set in Shaghai, in 1941 and tells the story of a young boy. Jim’s (Christian Bale) parents, like so many other of the rich Brits living in Shanghai, didn’t react in time to the aggressions of the Japanese. Many thought that they wouldn’t risk anything as they were not Chinese; they believed they were protected by their status as foreigners and their money. But they were wrong. When the Japanese troops finally invade, it’s too late. Most of them try to flee, leaving behind their houses and all of their possessions.  In the general chaos, Jim loses his parents and has to fend for himself. At first he returns to their beautiful mansion, but the food is soon gone and he starts roaming the streets until he meets Basie (John Malkovitch). Basie is an expat just like Jim’s parents were but he’s a very different kind. A hustler, a thief, someone who lives from hand to mouth. He sees that Jim is from a rich background and decides to look after him. Whether there is some genuine kindness or pure calculation isn’t so clear at first. What is clear is that they get along like a house on fire. Jim is a precocious, extremely intelligent and crafty kid – also terribly annoying – and they complement each other perfectly.

When they are finally arrested by the Japanese and brought to a POW camp, they survive doing what they know best, dealing and stealing, and making money out of everything. The time at the POW camp is one of great liberty for Jim. He’s soon known by everyone and while he’s an obnoxious kid, they also like him and find him very useful.

Despite of the danger and captivity Basie and Jim are doing great for themselves, help each other out, or rather profit from each other. Still, the war leaves traces and when they can finally leave the camp, they are both altered.

I loved the beginning of this film, the cinematography is amazing and the story is fascinating. Basie and Jim are larger-than-life characters, the kind you admire and despise at the same time. At least I did. Christian Bale did an amazing job at portraying Jim. What an annoying kid that was. He talks and talks endlessly and while he’s crafty, he never knows when to stop or give it a rest. Basie is ingenious and maybe, he means well at times, but mostly he’s the type of character who will always be able to make money, preferably even through selling out others and profiting from their misery.

There are a few tense moments, but overall we often get a feeling that this is less a POW camp than a summer camp. I was wondering if that was because Spielberg tried to stay true to the boy’s point of view or whether these camps for civilians were not that bad.

It’s a highly watchable movie and one I will certainly watch again, but unfortunately, the film has a lot of typically cheesy Spielberg moments, which annoyed me. I still think it’s a beautifully filmed movie and a great story. I liked it, but  didn’t love it because I hate it when director’s manipulate us. Spielberg always does that, that’s why I don’t really like Schindler’s List and even think Saving Private Ryan could have been much better than it is.

War Horse (2011)

I find it much harder to watch anything depicting cruelty to animals than to humans. I can’t help it. And despite the fact that Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is decidedly tacky at times, it really upset me. Not so much the movie – things are toned down to make it suitable for all ages, I guess, – as to think about what those horses went through in WWI.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s eponymous novel, War Horse tells of the friendship of a farm boy with a horse. It’s very Black Beauty in the beginning. Out of sheer folly Albert’s father buys an expensive race horse that he can neither afford nor use. Albert manages to save his father’s farm and the horse and trains the animal until it is able to perform the duties of a workhorse. He also teaches him to come when he whistles and many other tricks.

When the war breaks out, Albert’s father sells Joey to a British officer who takes the horse to France. This almost breaks Albert’s heart but the officer, a kind man, promises to take care of Joey. Sadly he is killed in a reckless cavalry attack that goes very wrong. The horse, one of the rare that survives, can escape but is captured by the Germans. After this an odessey begins in which Joey changes hands more than once and more than once faces death.

Albert who has sworn to find his horse wherever it is (a bit of a Last of the Mohicans moment), has heard of the death of the officer and signed up. Soon he finds himself in the trenches in France.

The movie isn’t too graphic, we don’t see wounds and atrocities that you would normally see in a war movie, still it manages to convey the horror. It just does it by focussing on other elements. We see how many horses died in cavalry attacks and how thousands were overworked until they died from exhaustion.

The parts related to the war were, in my opinion, well done. Without being too graphic they illustrated a lot that was typical for WWI like the trenches, the mud, the gas. What was tacky was how the story was told at times and the end which didn’t seem very realistic. On the other hand the scene of Joey who runs down No Man’s Land and gets caught in barbed wire, manages to convey a better anti-war statement than many other movies.

The acting is quite good and in the case of Benedict Cumberbatch, in a very short but effective role as British Major, and Emily Watson, as the mother of Albert, even excellent.

Apart from showing the harrowing destinies of horses in WWI the movie captures the beauty of the bond that can exist between a human being and an animal.