I was trying to recall, coming out of the theater, the last time I saw a Steven Spielberg movie that I could say, “Yeah, I liked that,” without any reservations. I had forgotten Lincoln. I found both War Horse and TinTin rather bizarre. Crystal Skull was forgettable—I always thought the point of the Indiana Jones series was sort of to be stupid so I didn’t get the outrage. (I mean, sure, nuke the fridge and all that, but are we forgetting that in Raiders, Jones rides on top of a submarine as it crosses the Atlantic?)
I didn’t see Munich, because I really don’t care to see equivalences made between Israel and terrorists. War of the Worlds was okay, I guess, but it doesn’t touch the hem of the original’s skirt. The Terminal was okay, I think, I don’t remember it very well. So I guess Catch Me If You Can and Minority Report, back in 2002, was the last time I just enjoyed a Spielberg film without qualification.
Until today. The Flower, The Boy and I went off to see this, because, well, it was at a reasonable time, and we figured we’d end up seeing it eventually. And we all liked it. So, yeah.
I mean, it’s not great or anything. But it’s solid. And it avoids a lot of the landmines you might expect.
The story concerns Rudolph Abel, a spy caught at the height of the Cold War, and the insurance-lawyer-with-integrity who is plucked out of a hat to defend him, only to find that defending him is not what a frightened America wants. If that were all it were about, it would probably be a big pile of “meh”, but our lawyer-with-integrity manages to squeeze out a life sentence for his client rather than the death penalty, on the pragmatic grounds that an exchange might be necessary at some point in the future.
We already know this is going to happen by this point, and are not kept waiting even a moment before our hero loses his appeal before the Supreme Court and U-2 flyer Gary Powers is shot down over Russia. The rest of the movie concerns our lawyer-with-integrity negotiating an exchange, with the added wrinkle of negotiating not just for Powers but for a hapless grad student caught behind the Berlin Wall as it was going up. (Thanks, JFK!)
Let us stipulate that this movie excels, technically. We would expect no less from Spielberg and a budget of $40 million. The camera is in the right place. Several shots are brilliantly blocked. The whole thing looks fabulous, from the recreations of late ’50s America, to Berlin. It sounds fabulous, from the standpoint nice “natural” dialogue, sound design, and a restrained but effective score by one of my favorite Hollywood composers, Thomas Newman. It’s long, at about two-and-a-quarter hours, but it doesn’t feel excessively long.
The script was co-written by the Coen brothers, and actually contains a lift from The Big Lebowski (“You fucked it up!”) which is about the only really NSFW in the movie, though there are a lot of “goddamn”s. The acting is solid, with Tom Hanks in the lead, and a particularly sublime performance from Mark Rylance as Abel. I found Amy Ryan appealing as Mrs. Lawyer, but then I seem to find her appealing in every role, regardless of not being able to connect her to previous performances.
There are a couple of nice Hitchcockian suspense moments, too. And I was glad to see that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are denounced as traitors, not just because they were, but because that would’ve been the prevailing view of that character at that time. I wasn’t super crazy about the handling of the “duck and cover” stuff, because I was raised on the mockery of that—as though no mitigation could ever occur in any nuclear attack, regardless of where one was situated, and as though nihilism was a better option. But it wasn’t horrible, or even implausible the way it plays out.
It’s hard to use the word “glad” when seeing people shot at Checkpoint Charlie, or the imposing, brutalist architecture in the Soviet courts—to say nothing of the starving East Germans—but I was glad that history was not completely forsaken, as happens sometimes. The attempts to make a moral equivalency are weak indeed, as it should be, though there is an attempt to draw an equivalency between the honorable KGB spy and the rather harshly portrayed U-2 pilot—though perhaps not as harshly portrayed as the actual pilot was at the time.
Eh. It makes for a better movie to have Hanks and Rylance develop a kind of friendship, just as making Hanks a hapless lawyer whose name is pulled out of a hat rather than someone who worked with intelligence before makes a better movie, and this does not purport to be a documentary.
Then there’s this beautiful speech Hanks makes about the Constitution. He says “What makes us Americans? One thing – the Constitution.” It is a thing of beauty, indeed, but also the height of irony coming from a guy consulting with the latest Constitution shredder on preserving and promoting his legacy.
Don’t let that get in your way, though. It is a good film, has a relatively small number of Spielbergian sins, and boasts the best production values in Hollywood on top of a solid plot.