Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Bridge of Spies Too Far: The Spielberg Effect

Steven Spielberg is a tough act to follow. Perhaps especially for Steven Spielberg. It's not just that he's an iconic director who has more classic films on his resume than arguably any other director working in Hollywood today. It's not just that he was one of the fathers of the modern blockbuster, leaving an indelible mark in the landscape of motion pictures. It's not just that he's a heavyweight in the industry, capable of influencing the notoriously insular MPAA into developing an entirely new rating for movies in the United States in between PG and R, the now-popular PG-13.

It's all of that combined plus the fact that he makes it seem so effortless.

As we would say in the '90s (often and with increasing vigour), he's all that and a bag of chips. Steven Spielberg has reached a level of excellence that few of us could ever hope to achieve. Whenever I talk about my favourite directors, Spielberg doesn't usually come up, but not because he's not one of my favourites; it's because his inclusion on the list is a given. I don' have a list of favourite directors; I have a list of favourite directors besides Spielberg. And I think this is true for a lot of people.

It's all but guaranteed that at least one Spielberg film is on your list of favourites: Jaws, the Indiana Jones trilogy, E.T., Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Minority Report, Hook. It seems like all this guy has to do is take a piss in the general vicinity of a movie and it's all but guaranteed to be a success. You see Spielberg's name as the director on a movie you're working on, and it's literally a given that you can start planning on who you're going to bring to the Oscars. Hell, he's even practically executive produced the childhoods of entire generations with producing credits on such classics as Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies, Back to the Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

It's not just a case of setting the bar so high that you can't reach those heights again. Spielberg has been consistently pumping out quality material for the better part of four decades, while occasionally taking the time to fuck Kate Capshaw, shit bricks of pure gold, and cure cancer with his tears (presumably). It's come to the point where we just take for granted that, yeah, Spielberg is a great fucking director. So what? The real issue is that Steven Spielberg doesn't have the same peaks and valleys that a lot of other filmmakers do. That isn't to say that there is no variance in the relative quality of his work, it's just that the difference between his highs and lows is so small that he's been kind of relegated to the kind of social purgatory you typically see in long-term relationships; we've come to take Steven Spielberg for granted.

This became increasingly apparent as I recently sat down to watch his Cold War thriller, Bridge of Spies. And I was consistently disappointed that I wasn't completely blown away. But the thing is, any time I tried to pinpoint why I wasn't wowed, I couldn't put my finger on anything. It was incredibly well shot (from a layman's point of view, at least), well acted, well scripted, well scored, etc.  What was I missing?

I though for a moment that maybe the movie wasn't that great. But then I re-framed my thinking to get some perspective on the situation. If a Uwe Boll or a Brett Ratner or even a Michael Bay had directed Bridge of Spies, people would have been literally shitting their pants. Hell, if Troy Duffy or Richard Kelly magically reappeared out of whatever cinematic Phantom Zone they've apparently been banished to for unspecified crimes, reddit would have a fucking nuclear meltdown.

I don't think it's a matter of Spielberg losing his edge, I think that it has more to do with falling victim to one of the pitfalls of any long-term relationship: we take Steven Spielberg for granted. He's always been there, whether to inject a little childlike whimsy into our lives or to shine a sobering light on the horrors of war or to shine a sobering light on the horrors of war for horses or to provide material for sci-fi fanboys to polish their knobs over. He's been there through thick and thin, a real-world constant analogous to baseball in Field of Dreams. In fact, read this shit out loud in your best James Earl Jones voice and tell me it doesn't bring a tear to your eye:

Ray, people will watch, Ray. They'll come to the cinema for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up in the parking lot, not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at the door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the theatres; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the aisles, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the movie and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will watch, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been Spielberg. Hollywood has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But Spielberg has marked the time. This man, this visionary: he's a part of our past, Ray. He reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will watch, Ray. People will most definitely watch.

Bridge of Spies follows the story of insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) as he is basically conscripted to serve as the defence attorney for captured soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in what is essentially a show trial so that the US government can (unironically) claim that due process was followed. Naturally, Donovan and Abel form a friendly bond built on mutual respect which comes in as handy motivation when Donovan is once again called upon by the American government in the name of plausible deniability to negotiate a prisoner exchange involving Abel and captured American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Oh and also all of this is taking place against the backdrop of the Cold War, with particularly chilling imagery of the Berlin wall being erected.
But DiCaprio told me this is where the producers wanted to
give me the Oscar for Best Actor... wait a minute...

As good as Bridge of Spies was, I can't help but feeling like the film is missing out on something. It comes out in the film that Donovan helped convict Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials, and the final title card of the film is this:

Following the successful conclusion of the Powers-Abel exchange, James Donovan was asked by President Kennedy to undertake further negotiations on behalf of the U.S. In the summer of 1962, he was sent to Cuba to discuss with Fidel Castro the terms of the release of 1,113 prisoners held after the Bay of Pigs invasion. When Donovan finished negotiations, he had secured the release of 9,703 men, women, and children.

Holy fucking shit. Normally successfully negotiating with the Soviet Union and East German governments for a prisoner exchange during the height of the Cold War would be the high point of anybody's life narrative. But I can't help but feel that that the compelling story presented in Bridge of Spies is bookended by two even more compelling stories. Apparently the "B" in James B. Donovan's name stood for "Big Fucking Balls." There are few enough genuine badasses in the world, it would be a disservice to sell them short. (Can't wait for the inevitable Christopher Lee saga in 4k high-def.) At the very least, it seems like they easily could have made a trilogy for this dude. You've got WWII war criminals followed by the Cold War followed up with Fidel Castro's communist Cuba. The fucker practically writes itself. He's like a genuine, anti-Forest Gump who has actually done some real good in the world.

And then there's the Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel. I don't know if he was anywhere near half as cool as Mark Rylance plays him, but I would watch the shit out of a series of films about this dude. I don't mean "cool" as in wearing-your-sunglasses-inside-because-when-you're-this-cool-the-sun-always-shines cool, I'm talking "cool" as in engaging-in-espionage-in-a-foreign-country-for-the-good-of-your-own-people-and-not-choking-when-the-collective-weight-of-the-Western-world-is-brought-to-bear-against-you cool.

In fact, watching Rylance as Rudolf Abel, it occurred to me what a shitty spy James Bond actually is. Abel is a nondescript, middle-aged man, calmly going about his day. He's dressed like a normal human being (normal by 1960s England standards) and is about as average and unassuming as possible. He covertly gathers and transmits intel back to his handlers without drawing attention to himself. When he's captured, he stays calm and cool. In fact, his answer to repeated questions as to why he doesn't seemed alarmed or concerned about his fate (up to and including his very likely death) is "Would it help?"
Walter White knocks first? Rookie mistake. You never want
them to hear you coming.

It's going to be hard(er) to watch any James Bond film after this, because he looks like such a reckless fucking amateur by comparison. He's a tuxedo-wearing, womanizing, alcoholic playboy who kills and blows shit up on a whim and is either incapable or unwilling (my guess is the former) of keeping his identity a goddamn secret for more than ten seconds. James Bond wouldn't last an hour in Abel's world. "Well maybe James Bond isn't that kind of spy," you might say. Well, James Bond isn't a spy at all. He'd have been captured or killed within ten minutes of being sent on the same assignment Abel was. Bond couldn't get somebody's phone number without blowing up a tanker truck and kickstarting World War III. It's never implied that Abel killed anyone, but if he were to, I guarantee you nobody would know about it until the neighbours started complaining about the smell two weeks later.

Bridge of Spies is a solid entry into the Spielberg pantheon, but I think I'll always be left wondering: If this had been made fifteen or twenty years ago, would I hold it in the same esteem as Jurassic Park? I don't think it's a matter of whether or not Spielberg has changed as a director or as a person, because that's a given; we're all constantly evolving personally and professionally. That is, I don't think the quality of his work has declined. The only other option is that it really isn't him, it's me. I guess I shouldn't worry too much about the implications. After all, would it help?


Bridge of Spies is Spielberg, but only time will tell if it's classic Spielberg. Final verdict is 7.5/10 = One Head Calmly Smoking in a Prison Cell in Defiance of Fear Itself



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