Saturday, June 25, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXXV: Everyone will hate me, but at least I'll lose


The story itself is just a little dull, so instead of talking about that, roughly half of this review is dedicated to the great/terrible cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, Kaminski's undiagnosed compulsive disorder, and Spielberg's morally-unsound enabling behavior toward his poor DP.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen
With Tom Hanks (James Donovan), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters, Jr.), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers), Will Rogers (Frederic Pryor), and Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel)

Spoiler alert: N/A
Note: this is a re-edited and slightly expanded version of a review written in February 2016, the major difference being that I've mildly softened in my visceral reaction to Kaminski's body of work—it helps that I've seen practically all of it condensed into a couple of months; but, never fear, my disgust has certainly not softened when it comes to his work in this film

Above: the best shot of the movie.  (Duration: .75 seconds.)

Okay, now that we've got that opening caveat aside, let's talk about what this movie looks like most of the time.  It's as true now as it was when I said it back in February: Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski need to stop, or be stopped, perhaps through some manner of legislation.  Going on twenty years now, every time Kaminski has proven himself a genius, with a Schindler's List or a Minority Report or a Munich, he's also proven himself completely amenable to his own unmistakable brand of absolutely shameful hackery—especially whenever his director has neglected to call upon Kaminski and his obvious skills to deliver any kind of real, abiding aesthetic.  That's why Lincoln and Catch Me If You Can, not to mention noticeable stretches of The Lost World and War Horse and even Amistad (which is mostly well-mounted) offer themselves up as horrendous sacrifices to Kaminski's one true God, a blinding beam of hideous light.  (Meanwhile, Saving Private Ryan is certainly effective, but it's actively designed to hurt you—and, frankly, many of Kaminski's most interesting efforts can indeed be characterized as "compellingly unattractive."  The Terminal alone registers as a more-or-less conventional, pleasant-looking motion picture; but, again, you get the feeling that this is the case only because Spielberg actively leaned on him to "do it normal.")

So, let's disregard his triumphs for the time being, and get our hate on instead: having spent about thirty hours soaking in Kaminski's work, I've gotten the chance to witness half of Spielberg's filmography undermined by the most offensive interior lighting set-ups in all cinema—and Spielberg, for his part, has fucking loved it.  Meanwhile, it's annoying that many critics actually seem to enjoy taking Spielberg and Kaminski's enormous shafts (of light) into their eyeballs.  I strongly suspect this has more to do with all the other moving parts of Spielberg's emotion machines—the editing, scoring, acting, etc.—which all still function more-or-less well; and yet there has been a definite decay in those skills since somewhere around the turn of the century, too.

You can make excuses for S & K, and, certainly, I'm eager enough to do so: Minority Report and A.I. are set in chilly technocracies; War of the Worlds is the story of Tom Cruise hiding in basements from lasers; and The Lost World, of course, is a terrible movie that not even its makers cared about.

But now we arrive at the most Kaminskian of all films, Bridge of Spies, and if Lincoln already brought the director and the DP to the very brink of outrageous self-parody, Spies sees them waltzing together right over that cliff, apparently without even realizing it was there.  Visually, the results are the most abominable thing they've ever done together: a palette largely leeched of color, and windows—so many windows—that appear to be the only thing standing between Kaminski's camera and the exploding heart of one thousand suns.  Thus do vast and piercing swathes of bright white light dominate and annihilate the compositional space of Spies, and it's so fucking distracting, and just so damned ugly, that even a much better film would still be injured by this fundamentally terrible aesthetic.

And perhaps in a world where Spies were not the culmination of two decades' worth of flood lights behind every pane of glass, it might even add up a kind of bizarre yet cognizable visual metaphor.  For Spies, after all, is a movie about a man doing his best to live up to his beliefs against the forbidding backdrop of a potential thermonuclear war.

And everyone died when the shockwave hit ten seconds later.  The end!

Of course, we don't live in that world.  Instead, for all I can tell, Spielberg and Kaminski actually died a few years back.  Lincoln and Spies are just the inevitable result of coding all the well-worn tricks and annoying tics of two auteurist filmmakers into one single immortal algorithm, which—when fed with sufficiently Oscarbaiting screenplays—uncannily move their cameras around their sets and stars, all on their own and without any human hand involved.  And this is why it's so important to get actors like Daniel Day Lewis—or, in our present case, Tom Hanks—because they're just not going to get too much in the way of nuanced direction from the terrifying, robotic voice of the Spielisnki 9000.

Anyway, Tom Hanks is awfully great in it.  But now we've gone too far, and I should probably mention the plot:

In 1957, the Cold War rages, and in the midst of a counterintelligence sweep, Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is identified, captured, and charged, inter alia, with espionage.  James Donovan, a lawyer at a prestigious New York firm and a veteran of the prosecution team at Nuremberg, is cajoled into taking Abel's case to demonstrate that the spy has received his due process.  But Donovan, a man of principle, takes Abel's rights more seriously than anyone expected, offering a vigorous defense and even appealing the case to the Supreme Court—though he finds little sympathy there for his arguments.

In the end, it's all Donovan can do to persuade the trial judge to not execute Abel—not because the judge wouldn't like to see the commie fry, but because, one day, a live Soviet prisoner may be more useful to America than a dead one.  And, hey!  Wouldn't you know, apparently later that very same week—or maybe it's five years later, for this film exists in a timewarp where children don't age and the ongoing narrative finds itself crammed into a space that is at once too large and too small—Gary Powers gets himself shot down over the USSR.  And let's not forget poor Frederic Pryor, arrested under false charges in East Germany.  The CIA reasons that since it was Donovan's idea in the first place, it seems only fair that Donovan be drafted into the service of his country once again, and thus do they send this untrained civilian into East Berlin to bring our boys home.

And now back to Hanks: yes, he's just fantastic, playing his upstanding lawyer with what amounts to a great heaving sigh of inconvenience, and his tendency toward snapping at his scene partners seemingly draws as much from Donovan's annoyance as it does any streak of righteous indignation.  Hanks' performance salvages much—it may not be the only saving grace of the film, though it is the only one that extends beyond one or two scenes—yet it cannot quite salvage a screenplay as ramshackle, discontinuous, and overloaded with its own self-importance as this one.  (Mark Rylance certainly isn't going to, and Rylance's marginally-amusing, marginally-engaging turn as Abel strikes me as one of the most undeserved Oscar wins in years.)

It's no new observation to point out that Spies is essentially two movies, that happen to have the same protagonist, and both of them are bolted together by the film's other major saving grace, the awesome bit of Gravity Lite that Spielberg gets up to with the downing of Gary Powers' U-2 spyplane.

On the minus side, if you were enjoying a nice nap, this part will wake you up.

Nominally, the first movie that Spies offers us is a legal drama.  However, it's actually something a bit less dry: it's a 50s-style patriotic melodrama (not dissimilar to 12 Angry Men in tone, and vaguely akin to All That Heaven Allows, if you stripped the lust out).  It turns principally on how Donovan's defense of the Soviet spy has transformed him into an overnight pariah.  There's a lot to enjoy here, as all Brooklyn joins together to pour disdain upon the Donovans, while our hero keeps trying to Do The Right Thing, constantly aware that it won't matter anyway, because nobody else is the least bit interested in anything but an ironic Soviet-style show trial—but damn it, somebody has to be the last sane American.

Indeed, this is sufficiently compelling stuff—certainly it's more fascinating than the actual law at work here, given that Abel's constitutional case is relatively straightforward (merely preempted by political reality), whilst the procedural elements are dumbed down to the point that it appears that Donovan, Super Lawyer, might not realize that there is a whole layer of process standing between Abel's trial in the S.D.N.Y. and the Supreme Court in D.C.  (Donovan's very first scene is quite instructive on what to expect in terms of legal drama: it is a character- and motif-building discussion between the heroic [sic] insurance lawyer and his adversary, a plaintiff's attorney; and it revolves around a legal point about whether an accident involving the defendant's car and the five plaintiff motorcyclists constitutes one occurrence, or five, and the two argue about this—in this scene set fifty years into the automotive age—without either party ever citing one bit of case law, let alone the actual fucking contract.)

Yet, humble as Spies might be as a legal procedural, it's still the better half of the film, for it drinks from that cup of Sirkian alienation, punctuated with moments of outright cartoonish intimidation and oppression.  That's why it's a little unfortunate that the second half of Spies—more like the second 60%—is concerned with the negotations surrounding the Powers/Abel exchange, undertaken five years later in East Berlin.  You see, it's here that it becomes apparent that the Coen Bros. had a crack at this script, and even more apparent that it's still being directed by Steven Spielberg, and that the two styles don't mesh all that well.  Earlier, in retrospect, you can see a lot of Coen DNA in Abel's (marginally) unnerving and (marginally) amusing stoicism; but now it truly comes into its own.  Strange outcroppings of absurdity stud the screenplay from top to bottom like unhammered nails.  Indeed, once we arrive in East Germany, a full-on wacky bureaucratic comedy begins straining to break free of the funereal chilliness of Kaminski's aesthetic—and it is not clear to me, even now, whether Spielberg should be commended or condemned for burying it, with his snow and his grayness and his cinematographer's remarkably unpleasant lensing.

But Spielberg keeps this two and a half hour exercise in foregone conclusions moving, while Hanks continues to anchor his character in something both fascinating and suitably mythic, and the film's climax—the actual handoff on the Glienicke Bridge—comes very close to single-handedly redeeming everything else about the film that was dull or routine.  The sequence is powered by the twin engines of Hanks' humane performance and Spielberg's tension-building direction; indeed, for the first time in the whole film, even Kaminiski's hyperwintry photography looks good (assuming, of course, that you don't mind some deeply-unmotivated lens flares).  It's a great scene, is what I'm saying: it pulls at the heartstrings with Spielbergian fervor, as Donovan wonders aloud about Abel's fate at the hands of his countrymen.  Abel asks him to look for certain subtle cues, for these will speak volumes about what the Soviets intend to do with him, once they have him back.  Waiting for the sign is thrilling; seeing it is tragic.  And if it strongly implies the opposite of what actually happened to Abel, a good soldier that the USSR saw fit to put on a postage stamp—well, that's why Spielberg makes movies rather than write history books.

But now we move into the epilogue, and Spielberg indifferently squanders most of the goodwill he just engendered.  Splattering some deeply inappropriate visual echoes of the Berlin Wall across the frame—the echo, in case you need to know, is a bunch of kids climbing a backyard fence and not getting cut to ribbons by machine guns, and it's such a doofy comparison to make that all I can say is that it underlines one of my thesis statements for this retrospective, which is that Spielberg is an intuitive filmmaker, but not necessarily a thoughtful one.  Indeed, all he does here (besides forcing his audience to roll their eyes out of their skulls) is to gently upend his movie's own apparent themes, all in order to remind us "America, fuck yes!", even though nothing, absolutely nothing, in Bridge of Spies could possibly have made one particularly proud to be an American—admittedly, with the sole exception that we share our nationality with Tom Hanks.

Score:  6/10

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