Tuesday, October 20, 2015

On Bridge of Spies

Spielberg's great when he's weird: the D Day invasion in Saving Private Ryan in which blood, sweat and mud splatter on the camera lens, and every man falls dead instantaneously when he's shot; Eric Bana and Daniel Craig's clinical assassination of a femme fatale in Munich; the methodical investigation and capture of the would-be murderer at the beginning of Minority Report, the close-up of scissors, the purpose of which we don't know, the close-up of a mind-control device, the purpose of which we don't know; a crashed airplane in suburbia in War of the Worlds; the bizarre, witty debates on the House floor in Lincoln.  Spielberg's awful when he's unembarrassed by his sentimentality: the ubiquitous American flag in Saving Private Ryan; every "what does it mean to be a Jew" speech in Munich; Tom Cruise thinking about his dead son in Minority Report; Tom Cruise thinking about his annoying son in War of the Worlds; a union soldier reciting the Gettysburg Address at the beginning of Lincoln.  

I enjoy Spielberg's weirdness more than Cronenberg's or Lynch's because it's couched between his Hallmark moments.  It's 9 pm at night.  A man has put his six-year-old son to bed and he's preparing for his seventh birthday tomorrow morning.  He writes a message on a birthday card and tears up, hoping that he could arrest time.  He puts the card in his desk drawer.  While his wife and son are asleep, he surfs the net for scat porn.  He has a hard time sleeping after that, so he starts reading a book about Stalingrad and gets off on all the graphic detail.  

The best parts of Bridge of Spies, Spielberg's dramatization of the U-2 incident, are his introductions of the main players.  Mark Rylance's Rudolf Abel is a hyper-intelligent spy, who carefully smudges out nuclear secrets on his paint palette while the CIA rips apart his apartment.  Tom Hanks's James Donovan is the insurance lawyer, an middle-aged, smart schoolyard bully who enjoys the way legal wordplay can get assholes off for the worst transgressions.  Austin Stowell's Gary Powers is an overgrown child eager to prove himself during a lie-detecter test.  The narrative in the rest of the film diminishes each of them.  They become mundane, familiar and a little too likable.  Abel, we learn, is really your quiet Jewish grandfather, a man of Old World wisdom.  Donovan is a crusader for the US Constitution and human decency amid Cold War paranoia.  Powers becomes a POW who endures torture with bravery and dignity.  On one level, you could argue that the movie is a case study in why heroism is so boring.  I would argue that Spielberg's movie, like most of his movies, reminds us that every hero has a fascinating creep hiding inside him.

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