“Bridge of Spies”—Channeling the Cold War

 

Bridge of Spies

The second collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote the script with Matt Charman, “Bridge of Spies” lands a place in my “Top 10 Films of 2015” list.

In this historical drama, “Bridge of Spies” takes place during the heat of the Cold War—1957–Tom Hanks stars as the American attorney, James Donovan, who is asked to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (the formidable Mark Rylance) and later to negotiate the exchange of the downed US pilot Gary Powers for Abel.

The story is ripped from the headlines of fifty-nine years ago, Donovan, despite massive public disapproval, CIA obfuscation, and threats against his family, refuses to ignore Abel’s constitutional rights for a fair trial. Donovan’s wife, Mary (Amy Ryan) meets eyes with her embattled husband and, in that look, Donovan understands the high stakes in taking the moral position to which he tenaciously holds on. It’s startling when it happens. Fight for justice or for the safety of one’s own family?

When we are introduced to Abel, he is a soft-spoken man who spends the majority of his days painting. Occasionally he will journey to the local park, paints in hand, to take in the beauty of the day. His gentle manners and quiet demeanor lull the audience into caring about him. Abel is also occasionally followed by various members of the United States government. When the U2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Russia and Powers is declared a spy, Donovan is designated to lead secretly the negotiation for the prisoner exchange.

Hanks gives another star-turn performance as Donovan. Solid, representing American core values, he would dominate the film if not for Mark Rylance who mesmerizes. He is amazing here. Rylance manages to command the viewer’s attention with facial and body gestures alone and very few lines of dialogue,. The supporting cast is equally strong, from Alan Alda as Donovan’s boss to Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife.

The film’s cinematography is also visually brilliant. East Berlin in 1957-1960 is recreated down to the razor wire on the wall. The mood of the screenplay by Charman and the Coens is perfectly captured.

Hank’s performance as Donovan is unflappable, displaying a tenacious determination beneath an affable charm and a stoic belief that everything can be resolved without bloodshed or ill feeling. He smiles and flatters, banters and cajoles while never taking his eyes off the prize. Mark Rylance provides a perfect counterweight to Hanks. His Rudolf Abel is silent and withdrawn. HIs words seem rationed and measured, following one-by-one from his lips: “Are you never afraid?” demands Donovan. “Would it help?” Abel replies.

A mixture of thriller, courtroom drama and history lesson, “Bridge Of Spies” makes for a riveting and unforgettable movie.

“Fargo”: Season 2—Still Far to Go

 

fargo-season-2-ted-danson-patrick-wilson

Season 2 of the award-winning Fargo mini-series is a stunning repeat performance not only of the Coen brothers’ iconic movie by the same name but also in its succession to Season 1. The season finale of Fargo was broadcast this week.

Comedy meets tragedy. Humor meets violence. Surreal meets the real with an infusion of the main theme: the loss of innocence. Hell descends, though the characters are ill-prepared, and now there is no turning back. Their unexpected dark side grows like a cancer. [And the ferocious transformation of characters is not unlike Walter White in “Breaking Bad”.]

Welcome to the world of Fargo, where wisecracks about food sit comfortably next to corpses in bloody scene after bloody scene. Season 2 is planted firmly in 1979, when the tensions of the Vietnam War have left their scars, when women’s changing roles and race relations are in the average American’s consciousness. Even in North Dakota and Minnesota, there is no escape. Social change will be traumatic for some, even in this isolated enclave where Lutheran pragmatism dictates avoiding self-expression and standing out from one’s family and community.

The ensemble cast is remarkable: Ted Danson, Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons (from “Breaking Bad”) and most of all Jean Smart and Kirsten Dunst. Jean Smart’s performance as Floyd Gerhart, matriarch of a small-town family syndicate, is a standout. Kirsten Dunst, in her first major television role, as Peggy, is stunning as the quiet beautician wanting to make her dream– “I just wanted to be someone”– come true. Echoes of perhaps the most famous quote in “On the Waterfront” (1954) by another dreamer, Terry (Marlon Brando): “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”  Flash-forward twenty-five years and Peggy is yearning for the same thing.

Their 1970’s North Dakota and Minnesota is populated with UFO’s (a sighting in Fargo was reported in 1975), crystals, “self-actualization” EST seminars , sideburns and bell bottoms. Peggy is so self-absorbed in becoming a new person, that in perhaps the most bizarre of the episodes , [Spoiler Alert!!] she is nonplussed when a UFO descends in the midst of a shoot-out. “It’s just a UFO, Ed. We gotta go”. Both startling and silly, the scene nonetheless epitomizes Fargo, North Dakota and its residents at that time.

The wonder of wonders is that this season marks the repeat of a new trend in mini-series: a continuation of the mini-series with a completely new story and cast, a trend started by “True Detective”. With far more sophistication and complex plot devices, the creators of Season 2 (notably Noah Hawley) leave no question in the viewer’s mind that this is indeed Coen territory. Fargo pays homage to Season 1, with the same characters (different actors) in a flash-forward to their older selves.

Although this season can stand on its own (for those who haven’t seen Season 1), tying in the principal characters from the first season into Season 2 is masterfully crafted. Moreover, I’m hoping some of the new characters added to the story will undoubtedly also be reborn in Season 3, whether as a flash-forward or as backstory. There is still far to go in this anthology in the Coen spirit. Season 3 of Fargo is now underway. The surprise and intrigue continue!