Search This Blog

October 20, 2015


It's that time of year when the Steven Spielberg contender is released to adoration. This year it's Bridge of Spies, the 17th Spielberg movie I've suffered out of the 30 he's directed to date. I have only seen the first in the Indiana Jones franchise, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). I have not seen Jaws (1975); Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) of which Spielberg's segment is #2; Jurassic Park (1993) or its sequel (1997);  A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) – I took issue with Spielberg being handed a Stanley Kubrick-conceived film; Minority Report (2002); War of the Worlds (2005); two I've never heard of: 1941 (1979) and Always (1989); and 2002's Catch Me If You Can, the only one I might consider seeking out. I have (groan) seen all the rest. Why? So I can defend my position against Spielberg as the worst highly acclaimed director of all time.

Let's take The Color Purple (1985) as an arbitrary starting point. Good god, man – it takes more than a bucket, a mop and a good cinematographer to turn a hovel into a bucolic cottage set amidst billowing fields of sun-dappled wildflowers. Then there's the requisite, manipulative John Williams score. Midway through, as I heaved yet another sob, sinuses swollen, I was ready to strangle the both of them for so artificially wrenching emotion out of the audience. Schindler's List (1993)? What's with that fleeting little girl in the red coat who keeps showing up in the frame? Is she a metaphor? If so, a metaphor for what? Then in 1998, the inaugural film in what we might call "Spielberg's Tom Hanks Era," Saving Private Ryan: Quit telling me it is the most realistic depiction of war ever captured on film, because anyone who makes such a claim has not bothered to see Bernhard Wicki's 1959 The Bridge, Elem Klimov's 1985 Come and See, or Patrick Sheane Duncan's 1989 84 Charlie MoPic.

In 2011, I subjected myself to both Spielberg holiday movies. The Adventures of Tintin starts out remarkably true to the wonderful Hergé creation, but instead of using one Tintin story, Spielberg proceeds to mash up three (“The Crab With the Golden Claws” [1941], “The Secret of the Unicorn” [1943] and “Red Rackham’s Treasure” [also 1943]). Tintin is a child journalist who, attended by his Wire Fox Terrier Snowy, is forever finding himself called to distant shores to solve inscrutable mysteries. Spielberg makes no attempt to mine the sharp geopolitical parody that was the raison d'etre for many of the Tintin stories. Instead, Hergé's intrepid character and the graphic charm of the ligne claire (clean line) style he pioneered are soon mauled when, no longer able to contain himself, Spielberg lets loose an endless animated CGI orgy. The youngsters in my audience began to crawl out of their seats and into the aisles to tune Spielberg out altogether and lose themselves in their own imaginations. Usually scornful of restless audiences, I sympathized while trying to stifle one sigh of annoyance after another. Writing in London's The Guardian, literary critic Nicholas Lezard rued, "Coming out of, I found myself, for a few seconds, too stunned and sickened to speak; for I had been obliged to watch two hours of literally senseless violence being perpetrated on something I loved dearly. In fact, the sense of violation was so strong that it felt as though I had witnessed a rape."
Young reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy come to the rescue
of Professor Calculus, who has invented a machine that destroys
objects with sound waves. He is the subject of kidnapping attempts
by the competing European countries of Borduria and Syldavia.
Published in 1956, the story reflects the Cold War tensions of the 1950s. 

Then came War Horse right on Tintin's heels, with yet another John Williams score and good actors playing caricatures for Hallmark-Hall-of-Fame-tear-jerker effect. The horse is about the only player in the film Spielberg was unable to turn into a stock character. His sentimental nostalgia for overwrought Hollywood epics is almost as gratuitous as his addiction to CGI.

Daniel-Day Lewis, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes... distracted, I started to wonder which big-name actors would NOT appear in Lincoln (2012). I was also annoyed that virtually every African American in the film was expected to look supplicatingly at all the nice white people. (In all fairness, for once I liked John Williams' score.) I was gratified, therefore, when, after the torrent of laudatory reviews, I ran across a critical opinion in The New York Times editorial pages (not the Movies Section, mind you) by Kate Masur, associate professor of history at Northwestern and the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. Lincoln is determined, Masur argues, "to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role."
Almost 180,000 African Americans fought in the Civil War,
constituting about one-tenth of the manpower of the Union Army.
Source: William A. Gladstone. United States Colored Troops, 1863-1867 (1996) 
So this weekend, it was Bridge of Spies, in which Spielberg moves from World War II (Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) to the Cold War and turns again to Tom Hanks (because, as NPR's Bob Mondello pointed out, Jimmy Stewart wasn't available). Hanks plays James B. Donovan, the attorney appointed to defend Rudolph Abel, the Soviet KGB spy captured in 1957. (Mark Rylance's performance as Abel is reason enough to see the film. It is masterful.) Donovan is then saddled with effecting Abel's trade for Gary Powers, the young U-2 espionage pilot shot down over the USSR (which occurred in 1960, but the film compresses the historical events). Into the bargain, Donovan works to include an American graduate student enrolled at the Free University of West Berlin who, caught in the eastern sector just as the first stones for the wall are being laid (which historically was 1961), is being held without charges by East German police. It's the Cold War and no one but no one believes a Soviet spy should be handed the luxury of a trial. The film is built around the flag-waving premise that what has become the U.S. "justice" system is restored to the U.S. Justice system by the Stewart/Hanks patriot. Flouting attorney/client privilege, an FBI agent insists that Donovan reveal whatever Abel has said to him:
FBI Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd): We need to know what the Russian was telling you. Don't go all boy scout on me. We don't have a rule book here... 
Donovan: You're Agent Hoffman, yeah? You're German extraction. My name's Donovan. Irish. Both sides. Mother and father. I'm Irish, you're German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing. One, only one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules, and that's what makes us Americans. It's all that makes us Americans so don't tell me there's no rule book and don't nod at me like that, you son of a bitch. [I don't think the violins soared, but this little speech certainly gives the cue.]
Center: Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan and
Amy Ryan as his wife Mary in Bridge of Spies
On the positive side, when it came time to score the film, John Williams was in the hospital so the score was composed by Thomas Newman – serviceable and it spared the sinuses. On the set direction, let me admit that I criticize directors who overdo period set-dressing. Take Clint Eastwood's Changeling, for example, which takes place in eve-of-Depression 1928. The streets are filled with overly restored vehicles sleeker than they looked coming off the factory floor; the costumes are straight out of wardrobe undistressed; and all of the office and domestic accoutrements are just so. In Bridge of Spies, Spielberg errs in the opposite direction. A veritable army must have been deployed to comb every prop shop, flea market and hoarder's attic for authenticating decor and accessories: Vernon Ward/Paul Jones-esque botanical prints and period knickknacks abound as do cigarette packs, ashtrays and advertising matchbooks. There are atomic saucer desk lamps, a Bakelite radio, pastel plastic snap-on hair curlers – and in the final sequence, the children in front of the black and white television set eat TV dinners. There must have been a checklist. Let's see, what might we have forgotten? The Swanson TV dinners are not sitting on folding TV trays. Missed that one! The filmmaker is so anxious for us to notice these details that we keep getting pan or cut shots to close-up, but the close-ups are a problem because everything is in as-found condition when it all would have all been brand new in post-war 1957 America. The motel room where the young U-2 pilots are given their secret mission would not have looked like a flea bag. The Danish modern knock-off furniture would not have been chipped and the vinyl upholstery would not have been sagging.

Spielberg has clearly modeled Donovan's family on Father Knows Best. The son (Noah Schnapp) is all Leave It to Beaver earnestness; the daughters (Jillian Lebling and Eve Hewson) suitably vulnerable; and Donovan, a jovial and tolerant dad à la Ozzie, is protective of his indulgent and devoted wife Mary à la Harriet. Mary (Amy Ryan) dons the same string of pearls June Cleaver, Donna Reed and Margaret Anderson were never without. She wears eyeglasses in one scene only, presumably to establish that the prop manager was able to come up with period spectacles.

Bridge of Spies is designed to tap our nostalgia – at least the heartstrings of those of us who are boomers – while at the same time suggesting how bad the Soviet "evil empire" was. Yet it never penetrates its veneer to convey the ubiquity of the fear the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation provoked (despite a scene of tearful youngsters as their teacher shows them a "Survival Under Attack" type government film). If it wants to establish some sort of parallel between the Cold War and Putin's recent annexation of Crimea in Ukraine and his interventionist tactics in Syria, it misses the mark and merely drapes itself in superficial patriotism and family values rather than confront difficult questions posed by the realities of the contemporary world.

Writing about Lincoln in the February 2013 issue of Harper's Magazine, Thomas Frank called Spielberg out in no uncertain terms. I will confine myself to the last two paragraphs here but recommend the entirety:

"Lincoln is a movie that makes viewers feel noble at first, but on reflection the sentiment proves hollow. This is not only a hackneyed film but a mendacious one. Like other Spielberg productions, it drops you into a world where all the great moral judgments have been made for you already  – Lincoln is as absolutely good as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are absolutely bad – and then it smuggles its tendentious political payload through amid those comfortable stereotypes.

"If you really want to explore compromise, corruption, and the ideology of money-in-politics, don't stack the deck with aces of unquestionable goodness like the Thirteenth Amendment. Look the monster in the eyes. Make a movie about the Grant Administration, in which several of the same characters who figure in Lincoln played a role in the most corrupt era in American history. Or show us the people who pushed banking deregulation through in the compromise-worshipping Clinton years. And then, after ninety minutes of that, try to sell us on the merry japes of those lovable lobbyists – that's a task for a real auteur."

Substitute "Bridge of Spies" for "Lincoln," and Frank's is an excellent review of Spielberg's latest "historical" effort. What Bridge of Spies says about the political zeitgeist – about prisoners at Guantánamo Bay who, unlike Abel who served just over four years of his sentence, will never see a trial; about the deleterious effects of recent Acts of Congress like the Patriot Act (2001) and Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United (2010) –  what the movie says about the current moment in relationship to that Constitution Spielberg is so eager to romanticize, is zip.

No comments:

Post a Comment