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Arts Film Review

New films: Bridge of Spies, Freeheld, and Crimson Peak

Bridge of Spies
Directed by Stephen Spielberg

Stephen Spielberg’s latest film, “Bridge of Spies,” recounts the circumstances of the deal to exchange Francis Gary Powers, a U-2 pilot shot down over the USSR in 1960, for Rudolph Abel, a Soviet intelligence officer arrested for spying in the US. Tom Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, the lawyer initially assigned to defend Abel and later tasked with negotiating the prisoner exchange.

“Bridge of Spies” is a masterpiece of production values, much as Speilberg’s other historical films have been, including “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Munich, and “Lincoln.” However it’s less of a masterpiece of storytelling, despite being so well made and, with Hanks’ strong performance, almost equally engaging. The vast majority of the film really is quite delightful – Hanks continues in that modern Jimmy Stewart/Henry Fonda mode as the heroically principled everyman aided by a witty and appealing script from Matt Charman and the Coen brothers. And he’s strongly supported by the rest of the cast, especially by Mark Rylance as the enigmatic spy.

The problem is that it feels too clinical and manipulative along the way. For example, Hanks’ Donovan is depicted as being very unpopular for defending Abel on spying charges but, rather than just showing some level of public unease, Spielberg shows us the same woman on a train scowling at Donovan one day and then smiling at him on another day as his popularity shifts. Similarly, we see him looking out of a train window in Berlin as people are shot climbing the Berlin Wall and out of a train window back home, where kids jump neighborhood fences without such fears or danger.

It’s a shame, because the bulk of the film is really quite excellent and these moments of being hit over the head with such obvious comparisons leave you feeling as though there’s no trust in the audience’s ability the keep up with what’s going on in the story or with the character’s development. Nuance is followed by spoonfed heavy-handedness in case we missed it. It may be intentional, and the film is odd in the sense that it depicts events from the 1960’s but feels almost like a film from a decade earlier, but it’s a narrative style that still grates.

The story here also feels a little conveniently adjusted in terms of details and timelines – albeit not beyond the realms of artistic license. Abel is shown being followed by American agents and the audience is left to assume he was arrested due to the great diligence of those assigned to watch him. Instead, the real Abel was identified by another Soviet agent who was rather unreliably fond of alcohol and cash, both in large quantities, and who defected on his way back to Moscow.

However, on balance, I still enjoyed the film. It’s a little like being told a great story at a party by somebody who’s talking down to you, or having somebody explain the punchline to an uncomplicated joke. It doesn’t stop it from being a great story or gag, even if you don’t appreciate the delivery.

Moviebriefs

Julianne Moore and Ellen Page play a lesbian couple in “Freeheld,” a film that tells the true story of New Jersey detective Laurel Hester who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and fought to have her pension benefits transferred to her same-sex partner. It was an important case on the path to equality but it may suffer in terms of timing, coming after even more pivotal court decisions. Moore and Page are both strong in their performances although they aren’t really allowed to run with them until late in the movie. In that sense, “Freeheld” feels a little like society in general in that it finally comes together in the third act. Prior to that, the establishing scenes and expository dialog are so by the numbers that it’s hard to decide if they’re any more effective than a few onscreen paragraphs of backstory might have been. But once the film focuses on the battle in City Hall and in the squad room, it largely makes up for that. Michael Shannon, so strong in the currently playing “99 Homes,” is also good here as Hester’s police partner. Steve Carell lightens the mood as a gay rights organizer who may be very well portrayed but who comes across slightly awkwardly stereotypical for those of us who don’t know the real person behind the character. Overall, “Freeheld” tells a powerful story but it might have been stronger had we joined the events a little later, rather than starting with what feels like a highlight reel of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree’s relationship.

Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance “Crimson Peak” is beautiful to watch, from a visual perspective, but seems to fit in with this week’s theme of compelling stories less than compellingly told. Mia Wasikowska plays a young American swept off her feet by Tom Hiddleston’s English Baronet, Thomas Sharpe. When her wealthy father dies in somewhat mysterious circumstances, she travels to England with Sharpe and his creepy sister (Jessica Chastain), to live in a mansion that’s literally sinking into the bleak red landscape. The story is delightfully twisted and sinister, and relies heavily on del Toro’s visual expertise in creating such environments, but it’s also awfully predictable. After the first 15-20 minutes, it’s hard to think of a single plot development that wasn’t absolutely obvious. Individual moments drew significant gasps and shrieks from the pre-release audience, but they seemed more a result of the suddenness of certain actions than from any great sense of surprise. “Crimson Peak” is a genre piece that will appeal to fans but which isn’t likely to win new converts.

New films: Bridge of Spies, Freeheld, and Crimson Peak via @sacramentopress

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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