“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

Several years ago, I read an article in which Steven Spielberg had expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. It has been over a decade since the director had made this comment. And as far as I know, he has only directed two movies that had anything to do with spies – the 2005 movie “MUNICH”, which co-starred the current Bond actor, and his latest film, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”.

Like “MUNICH”, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is a spy tale with a strong historical background. Based upon Giles Whittell’s 2010 book,“Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War”, the movie centered around the 1960 U-2 Incident and the efforts of attorneyJames B. Donovan to negotiate the exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for the captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel – whom Donovan had unsuccessfully defended from charges of espionage against the United States. Although Whittell’s book focused upon a larger cast of characters involved in the U-2 incident and the famous spy exchange, the screenwriters – Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen – and Spielberg tightened their focus upon Donovan’s role in the incident.

It occurred to me that in the past fifteen years, I can only think of five Steven Spielberg-directed movies that I have truly liked. Five out of eleven movies. Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that is good or bad. Fortunately, one of those movies that I managed to embrace was this latest effort, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”. I enjoyed it very much. I would not rank it at the same level as “MUNICH” or“LINCOLN”. But I thought it was a pretty solid movie for a director of Spielberg’s caliber. The latter and the movie’s screenwriters made the intelligent choice to focus on one particular person involved in the entire incident – James B. Donovan. If they had attempted to cover every aspect of Whittell’s book, Spielberg would have been forced to release this production as a television miniseries.

Yet, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” still managed to cover a great deal of the events surrounding the shooting of Powers’ U-2 spy plane and the exchange that followed. This is due to the screenwriters’ decision to start the movie with the arrest of Rudolf Abel in 1957. More importantly, the narrative went into details over the arrest, the U.S. decision to put Abel on trial, their choice of Donovan as his attorney and the trial itself. In fact, the movie covered all of this before Powers was even shot down over the Soviet Union. The screenwriters and Spielberg also went out of their way to cover the circumstances of the arrest and incarceration of American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who was vising his East Berlin girlfriend, when he was arrested. And that is because the writers had the good sense to realize – like Whittell before them – that the incidents surrounding the arrests of both Abel and Pryor were just as important as Powers being shot down by the Soviets.

What I best liked about “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was its ambiguous portrayal of the nations involved in the entire matter – the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). No country was spared. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed bent upon not only projecting some image of a wounded nation to the world. Both engaged in sham trials for Abel and Powers that left a bad taste in my mouth. And the movie portrayed East Germany as some petulant child pouting over the fact that neither of the other two countries were taking it seriously. Which would account for that country’s vindictive treatment toward Pryor. And neither the U.S. or the Soviets seemed that concerned over Pryor’s fate – especially the U.S. Watching the movie finally made me realize how the Cold War now strikes me as irrelevant and a waste of time.

As much as I enjoyed “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, the movie seemed to lack a sense of urgency that struck me as odd for this kind of movie. And I have to blame Spielberg. His direction seemed a bit . . . well, a bit too relaxed for a topic about the Cold War at its most dangerous. Many might point out that “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is basically a historic drama in which anyone familiar with the U-2 incident would know how it ends. Yet Both “MUNICH” and “LINCOLN”, along with Ron Howard’s “APOLLO 13” and Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film, “THIRTEEN DAYS”, seemed to possess that particular sharp urgency, despite being historic dramas. But for“BRIDGE OF SPIES”, Spielberg’s direction seemed just a tad too relaxed – with the exception of a few scenes. One last problem I had with “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was the ending. Remember . . . this is Steven Spielberg, a director notorious for dumping a surprising layer of saccharine on an otherwise complex tale. This saccharine was on full display in the movie’s finale sequence that featured Donovan’s return to the United States . . . especially the scene in which he is riding an El train to his home in the Bronx and his family’s discovery of his activities in Eastern Europe. It was enough saccharine to make me heave an exasperated sigh.

Speaking of Donovan’s El Train ride back to his neighborhood, there was one aspect of it that I found impressive. I must admit how cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime collaborator of Spielberg’s since the early 1990s, allowed the camera to slowly sweep over Donovan’s Bronx neighborhood from an elevated position. I found the view rather rich and detailed. In fact, Kamiński provided a similar sweeping bird eye’s view of the Berlin Wall and the two “enclaves” that bordered it. Another aspect of the movie’s production values that impressed me were Adam Stockhausen’s production designs. I thought he did an outstanding job in re-creating both New York City and Berlin of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his work was ably assisted by Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich’s set decorations; along with the art direction team of Marco Bittner Rosser, Scott Dougan, Kim Jennings and Anja Müller.

The performances featured in “BRIDGE OF SPIES” struck me as pretty solid. I thought Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Gaston, Will Rogers and Austin Stowell did great work. But for my money, the best performances came from lead Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Dakin Matthews and Sebastian Koch. Dakin Matthews has always been a favorite character actor of mine. I have always found his performances rather colorful. However, I would have to say that his portrayal of Federal Judge Byers, who seemed exasperated by Donovan’s attempt to give Abel a fair trial, struck me as a lot more subtle and effective than many of his past roles. Sebastian Koch gave a very interesting performance as East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who seemed intensely determined that his country play a major role in the spy swap and not be cast aside. Superficially, Tom Hanks’ role as James Donovan seemed like the typical “boy scout” role he had especially became known for back in the 1990s. And in some ways, it is. But I really enjoyed how the actor conveyed Donovan’s increasing disbelief over his country’s questionable handling of Abel’s trial and his sense that he is a fish-out-of-water in a divided Berlin. However, I feel that the best performance came from Mark Rylance, who gave a deliciously subtle, yet entertaining portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. What I liked about Rylance’s performance is that he did not portray Abel as some kind of stock KGB agent, but a subtle and intelligent man, who seemed clearly aware of the more unpleasant side of both American and Soviet justice.

I might as well be frank. I do not think I would ever regard “BRIDGE OF SPIES” as one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. I thought the movie lacked a sense of urgency and sharpness that nearly robbed the film of any suspension . . . despite it being a historical drama. But, I still believe it was a first-rate film. I also thought that Spielberg and the movie’s screenwriters did a great job in conveying as many details as possible regarding the U-2 incident and what led to it. The movie also featured a first-rate cast led by the always incomparable Tom Hanks. Overall, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” proved that Spielberg has yet to lose his touch.

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“GREEN ZONE” (2010) Review

“GREEN ZONE” (2010) Review

Over three years ago, journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote a book about the early days after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the occupation and governance particularly of Baghdad and the search for weapons of mass destruction. Director Paul Greengrass and actor Matt Damon took ”Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” and turned it into a political thriller about the clashing ideals of U.S. personnel on how to handle the occupation of Iraq. 

The story began with U.S. Army Warrant Officer Roy Miller’s search of a third location for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) allegedly created by Saddam Hussein’s government. Upon arriving at this third location, Miller discovered no signs of mass destruction weapons being manufactured or stored . . . just as he had discovered at the two previous locations. During a debriefing at the American “Green Zone” (the location of the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad), Miller announced his discoveries or lack of them and openly questioned the intelligence reports regarding the weapons. His comments earned the attention of the CIA’s Baghdad bureau chief, Martin Brown and Clark Poundstone, a Pentagon Special Intelligence official. The two men have different agendas regarding the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Brown wanted to utilize Saddam Hussein’s Army generals to help the U.S. keep the peace and prevent the country from succumbing to civil war. Poundstone, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with the generals. Instead, he wanted them dead and to install a pro-American puppet named Ahmed Zubadi as Iraq’s new leader. When an Iraqui man named ‘Freddy’ informed Miller of the location of the Iraqi generals, the warrant officer not only found himself caught between Brown and Poundstone’s agendas, but those of other characters – including his own.

”GREEN ZONE” is not the best political thriller I have ever seen. But I must admit that it is a pretty damn good movie. What made this particular movie interesting is that nearly all of the major characters have their own agendas. Some managed to achieve their agendas. Some did not. And at least one managed to achieve his agenda, only to lose in the end. ”GREEN ZONE” turned out to be one of the most ambiguous stories I have seen in recent years. Ambiguous on a level that would surprise many. And I suspect that many moviegoers would have preferred if the supporting characters’ moral compass – especially those of the Iraqi characters – had been a little less murky. But Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland decided not to take that route. And I am glad. The supporting characters’ ambiguity not only forced the lead character, Roy Miller, to become a wiser man; but made the story more interesting to me.

In another review of ”GREEN ZONE”, I read a complaint that none of the main characters really developed. I would disagree . . . from a certain point of view. What happened to most of the main characters was that most found themselves forced to face the realities of their situations. They spent so much of their time pursuing a particular agenda, until they realized that what they had wanted or were fighting for was nothing more than an illusion. Not only did Miller come to this realization, but also the movie’s main antagonist, Clark Poundstone.

”GREEN ZONE” marked Matt Damon’s third collaboration with director Paul Greengrass. If anyone had expected U.S. Warrant Officer Roy Miller to be another Jason Bourne, they would end up disappointed. Damon’s Roy Miller was not some superspy trying to come to terms with his violent past. Miller was a well-trained and competent Army warrant officer (ranked below a commissioned officer and above a high ranking non-commissioned officer) who had naively believed the Bush Administration’s propaganda about Iraq’s mass destruction weapons program. Damon did a top-notch job in conveying Miller’s slow realization that not only had he been naïve regarding his country’s decision to invade Iraq, but also about Iraq’s political situation. By the movie’s end, his Miller was still a very competent Army warrant officer. But the character also became a wiser and slightly embittered man. As a side note, the Miller character was based upon Warrant Officer Richard (Monty) Gonzales, whose Mobile Exploitation Team was charged with finding the WMDs during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Greg Kinnear was excellent as usual in his portrayal of the Pentagon Special Intelligence official, Clark Poundstone. His Poundstone seemed to have an air of a typical politician – charming, manipulative and very arrogant. Yet, these very traits blinded Poundstone from the true state of Iraqi politics. And Kinnear ably conveyed the official’s shock upon realizing that he had been very naïve. Brendan Gleeson’s character, CIA bureau chief Martin Brown, seemed like a different kettle of fish. Although both men were manipulative, Brown seemed more appraised of Iraq’s political situation and a lot more honest with Miller – a situation that would lead him to make the warrant officer an ally. And Gleeson did an excellent job in conveying Brown’s failure to consider the lengths Poundstone would go to achieve his goal.

The rest of the supporting cast also provided first-rate support – aside from one. Khalid Abdalla gave an emotional performance as ‘Freddy’, an Iraqi man who revealed the presence of Saddam’s generals and became Miller’s interpreter. His own personal agenda would prove to be the story’s wild card. Amy Ryan gave a complex performance as Lawrie Dayne, the journalist who realized that Poundstone had used her as a propaganda machine for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Her character was based upon former New York Times reporter, Judith Miller. Ambiguity seemed to be the name of the game in Yigal Naor’s performance as the ruthless General Al-Rawi, the Iraqi general who eventually discovered that Poundstone had lied to him about utilizing the Iraqi Army to help the U.S. keep the peace. The one performance that struck a negative note to me belonged to Jason Isaacs, who portrayed Major Briggs, an unscrupulous Delta Force officer, who portrayed Poundstone’s personal thug. I am not accusing Isaacs of a bad performance. I have to lay the blame upon Brian Helgeland, who wrote the character as one-dimensional. I doubt that any actor as talented as Isaacs could have done anything with the role except portray him as written – a murderous, yet competent thug.

Production designer Dominic Watkins did a solid job in recapturing the chaos of those early months of the American presence in Iraq. The contrast between war-torn Baghdad and the resort-like atmosphere of ‘the Green Zone’ struck me as amazing. Do not ask me about John Powell’s score for the movie, because I found it unmemorable. However, I cannot say the same about Barry Ackroyd’s photography. For me, it brought back bad memories of the shaky cam style featured in previous Greengrass/Damon movies like ”THE BOURNE SUPREMACY” and ”THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”. This particular cinematography style struck me as even more confusing in ”GREEN ZONE” This was especially apparent in the movie’s final action sequence. Just imagine the shaky cam photography and editing from the last two BOURNE films in a sequence shot at night and you might see how confused and dizzy I had felt from the experience.

As I had stated earlier, I would never call ”GREEN ZONE” one of the best political thrillers or war movies I have seen. The movie possessed certain elements I did not care for – the cinematography, Christopher Rouse’s editing and the portrayal of Jason Isaacs’ character. But the movie did have an interesting and complex story. The rest of the cast gave first-rate performances, given the ambiguous roles written for them. In the end, both Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon did themselves proud.

“THE CHANGELING” (2008) Review

”CHANGELING” (2008) Review

Set in Los Angeles of the late 1920s, ”CHANGELING” is based upon a true story about a single mother who realized that the boy returned to her after a kidnapping is not her son. After confronting the city authorities, they vilified her as delusional and an unfit mother. The movie’s events were related to the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, an infamous kidnapping and murder case that was uncovered in 1928. 

J. Michael Straczynski, creator and producer of the Award winning science-fiction television series, ”BABYLON 5”, had been tipped off by a contact at the Los Angeles City Hall about the case of Christine Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. He wrote a screenplay based upon the case and submitted it Brian Grazer and Ron Howard of Imagine Entertainment. Howard was slated to direct the film. But due to a scheduling conflict, Howard was unable to accept the assignment and it was offered to Clint Eastwood. Academy Award winning actress Angelina Jolie was cast as the anguished mother, Christine Collins. The cast also included John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Amy Ryan, Jason Butler Harner, Colm Feore, and Geoff Pierson.

I might as well say it. I really enjoyed ”CHANGELING”. I enjoyed it more than I thought possible. When I first learned about the movie, I thought it would end up as some missing child story with a science-fiction twist. After all, the movie had been scripted by Straczynski. I eventually discovered that the movie was simply based upon a true life crime that occurred in Los Angeles in the late 1920s. And since the movie, which happened to be two hours and 41 minutes long, was directed by Clint Eastwood . . . well, I feared that it would turn into another one of his slow-paced films that would leave me struggling to stay conscious. Thankfully, it did not happen. As he had done in ”FLAGS OF OUR FATHER”, Eastwood managed to forego his usual snail-like pacing and do Straczynski’s superb script justice with what I believe is one of his best works.

”CHANGELING” is a very engrossing story about single mother Christine Collins’ (Jolie) efforts to find her missing son Walter and deal with the antipathy and lack of interest of the Los Angeles Police Department. Collins’ interactions with the LAPD and especially Police Captain J.J. Jones (Donovan) were especially fascinating. The story took an even darker tone when a more competent police officer named Detective Ybarra (Kelly) made a connection to the disappearance of Collins’ son to a possible case involving a serial killer of young boys. Judging from what I have read about Christine Collins and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, Eastwood and Straczynski did a superb job of recapturing both the era and the actual case. Mind you, the movie is not completely accurate. After all, Jolie must be at least 15 years younger than the real Christine Collins was in 1928. But I am speaking of a Hollywood film, not a documentary.

Judging by the excellent performances in the film, it was easy for me to see that the cast really benefitted from Eastwood’s direction and Straczynski’s script. But to be honest, not even the best director or script could ever guarantee a good performance. Which is why I feel that ”CHANGELING” was very lucky in its cast . . . especially with its leading lady. Despite winning two Golden Globe awards, a Screen Actors Guild award and an Oscar, Angelina Jolie has never really developed a reputation as a first-rate actress. Sometimes I wonder if the media and the public are so blinded by her looks and image that they fail to realize how truly talented she is. I would certainly rate Christine Collins as one of Jolie’s best performances. She managed to completely submerge into her role of the ladylike Mrs. Collins who has to overcome her natural reticence to resist the L.A.P.D.’s lie that the boy returned to her some five months after her son’s disappearance is the latter. Although most moviegoers and critics tend to be impressed by emotional and showy performances, I tend to be impressed by more subtle acting. And there are two scenes that featured Jolie at her subtle best – one featured an interview Collins had with an analyst inside a city psychiatric ward and the other centered around Captain Jones’ last efforts to convince her that the boy found in Illinois and delivered to her was her son Walter. I had feared that the Hollywood community would overlook her performance and fail to give her a nomination.  Thankfully, Jolie managed to earn a slew of acting nominations for her performance . . . including Academy Award and Golden Globe nods.

Jolie received strong support from four actors in particular – John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly and Jason Butler Harner. Malkovich gave a solid performance as a Los Angeles evangelist named Reverend Gustav Briegleb who has been outspoken against the Los Angeles Police Department’s incompetence and corruption. His soliloquy about the police department not only gave me chills, it also reminded me that not much in Los Angeles politics have not changed in eighty years. In his chilling performance as Police Captain J.J. Jones, Jeffrey Donovan proved his versatility as an actor in a performance that bordered on subtle intimidation. Michael Kelly portrayed Detective Ybarra, the L.A. cop who discovered the link between Walter Collins and a serial killer . . . and he did so with a solid performance that matched Malkovich’s. The one actor who really impressed me was Jason Butler Harner, who gave a creepy performance as serial killer Gordon Northcott. The filmmakers had hired Harner due to the latter’s physical resemblance to the real Northcott. Physical resemblance aside, the actor’s performance could have easily become over-the-top. But Harner managed to inject a strong creepiness into the role without turning the character into a caricature.

I did have a few quibbles about ”CHANGELING”. Earlier I had marveled at the movie’s pacing despite Eastwood’s role as director and the 141 minute running time. And I stand by every word. But I must admit there was one point in the film in which it threatened to drag . . . namely the last fifteen or twenty minutes. One could suggest that the movie’s finale could have easily been deleted. But considering what had been revealed in those final moments, I doubt that would have been wise. One last quibble I had was Oscar nominee Amy Ryan’s role as a prostitute and fellow inmate of Collins’ at a city psychiatric ward. The filmmakers might as well have credited her appearance as a cameo. Despite Ryan’s excellent performance, her appearance in the film struck me nothing more than a waste of time.

No movie is perfect and as I had pointed out, ”CHANGELING” had a few imperfections. But in the end it turned out to be a fascinating look into a period in the history of Los Angeles. Thanks to Eastwood’s direction, Straczynski’s script, Angelina Jolie and a very talented supporting cast; ”CHANGELING” turned out to be an engrossing tale of crime and corruption that has already made my list of favorite movies for 2008.

“CAPOTE” (2005) Review

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”CAPOTE” (2005) Review

I finally got around to watching the first of two movies about writer Truman Capote and his work on the non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood”. This particular movie, “CAPOTE”, starred American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who eventually won a SAG award, a Golden Globe award and an Oscar for his performance.

Penned by actor Dan Futterman and directed by Bennett Miller, “CAPOTE” turned out to be a more somber affair than its 2006 counterpart, “INFAMOUS”. Miller had once commented that he wanted to create a more subtle portrait of the flamboyant author in order to emphasize on Capote’s lonely and alienated state . . . despite his relationships with authors, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) and Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood); and his popularity with New York high society. This subtle approach not only permeated the movie’s tone and pace, it also affected the cast’s performances – especially Hoffman and Clifton Collins Jr., as Perry Smith.

I do not know if I would have automatically given Philip Seymour Hoffman that Oscar for his performance as Truman Capote. I am still inclined toward Heath Ledger receiving the award for his performance in “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN”. But I must admit that Hoffman certainly deserved his nomination. He managed to skillfully portray Capote’s ambition and determination to create a literary masterpiece from the real life murders surrounding the Herb Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Hoffman also revealed how Capote used his charm to manipulate others . . . especially Perry Smith.

Catherine Keener earned both BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for her warm portrayal of “To Kill Mockingbird” author, Nelle Harper Lee. Granted, she deserved her nominations and I especially enjoyed how she managed to project a mixture of friendly warmth, reserve and moral fortitude in her performance. But I could not help but wonder if she could receive acting nominations, why not Clifton Collins, Jr.?

It seemed a shame that more praise had not been heaped upon Clifton Collins’ shoulders for his portrayal of the intense and soft-spoken convicted murderer, Perry Smith. His scenes with Hoffman gave the movie an extra bite of emotionalism that saved it from being too subtle. Like Daniel Craig’s performance of Smith in “INFAMOUS”, Collins brought an interesting balance of soft-spoken politeness and intense danger in his performance. Well . . . almost. The real KBI investigator in charge of the Clutter case, Alvin Dewey, had once described Perry Smith as a quiet, intense and dangerous man. In “CAPOTE”, Smith’s own sister had warned Capote that despite her brother’s quiet and polite demeanor, he was easily capable of committing the crimes against the Clutters. And yet, I never did sense any real danger in Collins’ performance. Not quite. Except in two scenes – namely his confrontation with Capote over the “In Cold Blood” title; and the flashbacks revealing the Clutters’ murders. The ironic thing is that I suspect that Collins was not to blame. I suspect that Miller’s direction and Futterman’s script simply did not really allow Collins to reveal Smith’s more dangerous aura.

All of this led to what became my main problem with “CAPOTE” – namely the somber subtlety that seemed to permeate the production. Not only did the director’s desire to create a subtle film seem to mute Collins’ potential for a more balanced portrayal of Perry Smith, it also forced Hoffman to hold back some of Capote’s more flamboyant traits. I am quite certain that this was both the director and the screenwriter’s intentions. But I also feel that this deliberate attempt at subtlety may have robbed both the Capote and Smith characters of a more balanced nuance. It also denied the audience a deeper look into Capote’s New York lifestyle and bogged down the movie’s pacing in the end. During the last thirty or forty minutes, I found myself begging for the movie to end.

But despite the movie’s “too somber” mood and pacing, “CAPOTE” is an excellent movie and I would highly recommend it for viewing.

8/10