When Good People Do Something

In the 1700s, Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The statement has been proved true time and again, but the proof has come in both the negative and the positive. In the last century political leaders appeased Hitler in the 1930s, which led to war and the Holocaust in the 1940s. At the same time individuals like Oskar Schindler, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, and Sir Nicholas Winton saved thousands from extermination during the war. They didn’t do it for glory; their actions were mostly unknown during their lifetimes. They did it because it was the right thing to do.

Schindler was known only to a handful until Thomas Keneally’s told his story in “Schindler’s List,” which reached the masses through Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation. Now Spielberg tells the story of another regular person who stood up for what was right at a time of hysteria in the US. Bridge of Spies is the story of James B. Donovan, a Harvard-educated lawyer who was counsel for the OSS during WWII and who helped with the prosecution at the Nuremburg Trials after the war. In the 1950s he was a partner in a New York City firm specializing in real estate law when his country called for his service again.

The movie begins in 1957 as the FBI closes in on Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an English-born Russian spy operating in New York City. After his arrest the government is faced with trying him for espionage, but no lawyer wants to seem disloyal to the US by defending Abel. Through his firm’s senior partner, Thomas Watters (Alan Alda), the government approaches Donovan (Tom Hanks) to take the case. The authorities expect Donovan to put on a show defense while Abel is convicted and sentenced to death, but Donovan believes that everyone is entitled to the best legal defense. The case eventually ends up before the Supreme Court.

Concurrent with Abel’s trial, the film shows the flip side of the espionage story with the recruitment of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and other Air Force pilots to work for the CIA as U2 spy plane pilots. Donovan saves Abel from the death penalty by suggesting to the judge that he might not want to set a precedent that the Soviets could follow if an American spy is captured. It’s a prescient argument when Powers is shot down over the USSR and Donovan is drafted again to negotiate an exchange.

There had been interest before in telling the story before. Gregory Peck had wanted to make a movie of it a few years after the event, with Alec Guinness as Abel, but his studio (MGM) wasn’t supportive. There was a TV movie in the 70s that told the Powers side of the story in an attempt to repair his reputation. When he returned to the States many considered him incompetent for getting shot down and captured, and he ended his days as an airborne reporter for a TV station in Southern California. He died in a helicopter crash in 1977, sacrificing himself to avoid hitting where children were playing.

Instead the story waited over 50 years to be told, but in this case it has aged remarkably well. The script is remarkably literate and detailed in its presentation of the late-50s/early-60s period. Spielberg recruited fellow filmmakers Joel and Ethan Cohen along with Mark Chapman to write the script, and they capture the era perfectly – a time when people expected an atomic war and children were taught to duck-and-cover, as if that could save them from incineration. They also capture parts of the incident that have been forgotten. While the events of the film transpired over the course of 5 years, Spielberg tells the story with the intensity and immediacy of a Cold War spy thriller. Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, provides rich color for the scenes in the US while changing to grays and shadows when the story switches to Berlin. This movie marks a major change for Spielberg, since it’s the first time he’s had anyone other than John Williams score one of his pictures. However, the movie is well served by the subtle theme written by Thomas Newman.

Hanks, as always, is stellar as Donovan, capturing the lawyer’s cerebral intellect as well as his quiet courage. Mark Rylance embodies Abel beautifully. When Donovan asks Abel why he’s not worried, Abel responds “Would it help?” They have the interchange three times in the movie, and each time Rylance adds shades of meaning to the simple exchange. Also outstanding is Amy Ryan as Donovan’s supportive if not always understanding wife.

In my recent review of Suffragette, I said that the film was more narrowly focused rather than giving a panoramic understanding of the time to the audience. Bridge of Spies is the opposite; you come out of the theater feeling like you’ve just had a trip in a time machine. As often happens, history cycles, and the themes of this film are as topical today as they were when these events took place. If you sacrifice the laws that are the foundation of this country in the name of expediency because of fears, then you also sacrifice the honor of the country as well. We need to be the good people who do what’s right if we really want to keep evil from triumphing.

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A Spectre of its Former Self

In 24 films over 53 years, the James Bond franchise has had hits and misses, though recently the Daniel Craig incarnation has done quite well. Casino Royale rejuvenated the franchise and made believers of all the nay-sayers about Craig taking over the role, while Skyfall was a phenomena – the most successful Bond movie ever. Of course, in between was the hiccup of Quantum of Solace, a movie that was truncated due to studio problems and a writer’s strike. (At 106 minutes, it was the shortest Bond film ever.) The newest entry, Spectre, isn’t short – at 148 minutes it’s the longest entry in the series – but it doesn’t match the highs of Casino Royale or Skyfall. Overall, it feels a bit like a retread.

The movie begins with a long tracking shot during the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City as Bond moves into position to monitor a meeting. Ever since Touch of Evil, an extended shot like this has been a tour de force for the director. Last year’s Birdman extended the one short to almost the complete movie. Digital effects do allow for cuts, though Birdman still did takes of 10 or more minutes, which for film is like staging “Hamlet.” But it means the shorter tracking shots no longer have the level of difficulty of the past. The sequence does lead to a fairly involved fight that brings down a couple of buildings and has a fight to the death in a helicopter, but it suffers in comparison to Skyfall’s thrilling and surprising opening, or the uncharacteristically rough beginning of Casino Royale.

From there the movie follows the usual pattern of a Bond film, trotting around the globe – London, Rome, the Alps, North Africa – as Bond digs into the depths of Spectre, the criminal collective that’s been behind the plots in the past three movies. The action has its thrills and some surprises, but it isn’t as involving. Part of it is the main challenge of any Bond film, that the movie is only as good as its villain. Here you have two: Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista). Waltz is debonair and suave, but we don’t really get to see him until the last third of the movie. Bautista stands in as the villain until then, but he’s almost silent and with little personality beyond his strength. Former wrestler Bautista was excellent in Guardians of the Galaxy, but this role is more just a single note played over and over. After Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre or Jarvier Bardem’s Silva, Oberhauser and Hinx are a letdown.

Along with Spectre, Bond, M (Ralph Fiennes), Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are dealing with a new overall head of British Intelligence, C (Andrew Scott). C is negotiating an unprecedented sharing of intelligence between multiple agencies, which could be a powerful tool against terrorism, or in the wrong hands a gateway to huge abuses. Scott also plays Moriarty on the BBC’s “Sherlock” and is excellent there, but in this role he’s more annoying than threatening. Q does get out into the field briefly, which is a rarity. The only other time Q’s been out is in License to Kill, when he was played by Desmond Llewellyn who originated the role. Whishaw’s fun in the fish-out-of-water scene, and it’s one of the better sequences in the film.

As always there are Bond girls, though in the recent films they’ve become women. One is the gorgeous Monica Bellucci, but unfortunately her time on screen is limited. The other is Lea Seydoux as Madeline Swan, who holds the key to finding Oberhauser. She’s kind of a Vesper Lynd lite who gives Bond someone to save. Seydoux was effective as the female assassin in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and she followed that with roles in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Blue is the Warmest Color. Spectre will increase her recognition, though the other movies were better roles.

Three writers worked on the story, and a fourth came on board to help with the actual script. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have done the Bond films since The World Is Not Enough, and John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo) joined them for Skyfall. Jez Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, Black Mass) helped with writing Spectre’s screenplay. It’s clear by multiple references in the script that they want Spectre to be viewed as the third (or third and a half if you include Quantum) movie in a trilogy. However, the constant references simply serve as a reminder of how Spectre is a lesser movie. It’s not down in the Spiderman 3 or X-Men: The Last Stand level of totally awful, but it also doesn’t rise to the Return of the King or Return of the Jedi level of excellence. The script also turns on an coincidence that’s painfully contrived. Sam Mendes is an excellent director, but where Skyfall felt like a labor of love from a fan of the series, Spectre is more of a mechanical exercise.

Where Spectre does drop to the awful level is in its opening credit song. After the sublime ”Skyfall” by Adele, any song would be a bit of a letdown, but “Writing on the Wall” by Sam Smith is one of the worst Bond movie songs ever. The only good thing about it is it’s completely forgettable once it’s over.

Craig has said this is his last outing as Bond. While he’s been the best Bond since Connery had his first vodka martini, it’s been 9 years since Casino Royale, the same amount of time between Dr. No and Connery’s last contiguous performance as Bond in Diamonds are Forever. There are several good names being floated as his replacement, including Tom Hardy and Idris Elba, so Bond will continue on. Spectre has had a wonderful opening both in the States and worldwide, so it will be a success financially. But it would have been nice for Craig’s final turn in the role to be an artistic success as well. It’s not bad; it’s just not great.

Going Rogue

The Mission: Impossible film franchise is fascinating for a couple of reasons. It’s the only multi-episode series that has had a different director for each film, so each episode has had a different style. Brian De Palma’s original was a straightforward “bigger = better” version of the original series while John Woo brought the ying-yang dichotomy of Hong Kong cinema to the table – the hero and villain were opposite sides of the same coin, as in the classic Infernal Affairs, the basis for Scorsese’s The Departed. (Woo also brought his trademark kung fu and gunplay.) With J.J. Abrams the story became more personal with hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fighting both for his country and the love of his life, while Brad Bird reminded the viewer that it was always the I:M team – not just one main character – who saved the day. Bird also infused the story with surprising humor as well as stunts that took your breath away. The other reason the franchise is fascinating is it gets better each time.

Now we have Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, this time with Christopher McQuarrie in the driver’s seat as director and screenwriter, from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3). McQuarrie wrote the classic screenplay for The Usual Suspects. His follow-up screenplays were less well received, though he established a relationship with Cruise by doing Valkyrie and Jack Reacher before they both had success with last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. For Rogue Nation, McQuarrie uses the template of James Bond, with a globetrotting story that has stops in Russia, Austria, Morocco, and London. He also exceeds the stunt work of Ghost Protocol and that’s not an easy thing to do.

The movie begins with the transport plane sequence featured in much of the publicity for the movie, with Ethan Hunt hanging off of the side of a plane in flight while trying to get inside with the help of computer geeks Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames). (The sequence was done old school, with Cruise actually doing the stunt.) At the same time, Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is trying to save the IMF from a play by the head of the CIA, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), to roll the force into the Agency.

Ethan is convinced a force of former intelligence officers that he calls the Syndicate is operating in secret to destabilize the world. When he goes into a record store to receive one of the classic self-destruct mission briefings he finds himself trapped by the head of the Syndicate (Sean Harris) and then brutally interrogated. He manages to escape with the help of a female Syndicate member, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Branded a rogue agent himself by Hunley, Ethan has to track down and expose the Syndicate.

McQuarrie keeps the story from going too far over the top and fills it with plenty of twists and turns, most of which pivot on the Faust character. Rebecca Ferguson is a Swedish actress with an English mother who had impressed McQuarrie with her work as Elizabeth on the miniseries “The White Queen.” She performs an incredible balancing act as Faust so that the audience is never sure which side she’s on throughout the movie.

Pegg and Renner are now firmly established as part of the IMF, and after only a cameo appearance in Ghost Protocol Ving Rhames is back as a full part of the team. Even though the movie slips back into centering on Cruise’s character, it does overall keep the importance of the team working together to stop the Rogue Nation.

The stunt work is exceptional, in particular a chase sequence through Marrakesh with cars and motorcycles as well as the opening sequence. It’s the literate script, intricately plotted, and that lifts this film beyond a simple string of action sequences and makes it one of the more satisfying thrillers to come along this year.

A Cerebral Thriller, and a Bittersweet Goodbye

For over fifty years, the works of John le Carre have been the antithesis of James Bond over-the-top spy thrillers. His novels have almost no gunplay and nary a car chase; the thrills are cerebral as you watch damaged people struggle to unlock a puzzle box and reveal the secrets inside. On the silver screen, the first adaptation of a le Carre book, 1965’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, created its own subgenre in competition with Bond – the world-weary spy. Without From the Cold, it’s unlikely there’d have been The Ipcress File, The Quiller Memorandum, or A Deadly Affair (based on another le Carre book).

Le Carre’s books have continued to be adapted over the years, with The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House, and the BBC versions of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Smiley’s People,” both starring Alec Guinness as spymaster George Smiley. With the new millennium, though, le Carre has had a bit of a renaissance on the screen. Along with the recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (starring Gary Oldman and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch), you have The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardner, which won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Rachel Weisz and was nominated for another three Oscars. The newest addition to these fine movies is A Most Wanted Man. Sadly, it marks the last major film role of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

 

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, an experience German spy who, after a debacle in Beirut, has been put in charge of a small counterterrorist unit based in Hamburg. They operate in the gray area where the police can’t go, and their focus is turning terrorist assets and compromising their funding, rather than making the headline-grabbing arrests the police seek. Their current target is Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a wealthy benefactor of Islamic charities who preaches peace and understanding, but who might be siphoning off funds for terrorists through a shadowy Cypriot shipping company.

Then Bachmann’s second-in-command, Irna (Nina Hoss), catches the trail of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim wanted by the Russians on terrorist charges. He’s slipped into Germany through the port of Hamburg, which has a history of being a porous entryway to Europe. He’s seeking out a German banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose bank was involved in questionable deposits under Tommy’s father. To help with his status in Germany, friends of Karpov put him in touch with Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an immigration lawyer working with a sanctuary group. Bachmann’s work is complicated by the police, who just want to arrest Karpov and be done with it, as well as interest from the CIA in the person of Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). Is Karpov a terrorist meaning to strike in Germany, or a victim of the Russian war in Chechnya, or is there perhaps a third option?

Director Anton Corbijn started with rock documentaries featuring U2, Depeche Mode and Metalica, then made the well-received Control and the George Clooney bomb, The American. He gets his mojo back with A Most Wanted Man, letting the camera become a spy itself, eavesdropping on the characters. Stephen Cornwall (le Carre’s son) is one of the film’s producers, and le Carre himself is an executive producer, ensuring a faithful adaptation of the book.

The casting is excellent, especially with McAdams and Dafoe as innocents (perhaps) caught up in the intrigue. Wright is wonderfully enigmatic, while Hoss provides excellent support as a woman who’s loyal to Bachmann but who also sees many things with greater clarity than her boss. At first Dobrygin appears to be everyone’s nightmare terrorist, but as more of his story is revealed, he wins sympathy while still retaining the edge of danger.

The movie, though, belongs to Hoffman. Bachmann is rumpled and experienced, constantly in need of a shave and a cigarette. Yet within Bachmann is honor and a bit of an idealist who has dedicated his life to serving in a shadow world for the greater good. Hoffman submerges himself in the role, using only the subtle trace of an accent in his voice and a soft, shuffling physicality. The acting world lost a one-of-a-kind talent with Hoffman’s death.

Just as it’s unusual to have a tense thriller without gunfights and adrenalin-pumping car chases, it’s also unusual to have a spy film where you care deeply about the characters. But that’s the key to the le Carre world. His heroes are tarnished every-mans who, while they’re in situations far apart from normal life, are completely relatable to for the audience. It makes for devastatingly effective story telling.