Sunday 20 December 2015

The Current Cinema - Ben Gibson examines Spielberg's technique in BRIDGE OF SPIES

Adam asked me about BRIDGE OF SPIES, which we saw on DVD a few weeks ago. In the Spielberg canon it's up there in the top five easily; strikingly and economically well-written, full of rich detail and then bolstered by a few good and eccentric character ideas perhaps from around Coen-ville. But it lets itself down in quite formal, filmic, ways at its end. 

The key foreshadowings here are YOUNG MR LINCOLN, MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and of course THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Fascinating how American liberal fiction can remain so patriotic and respectful while completely sacrificing any claims for integrity enjoyed by either the legislature or the key agencies of the state -- just as long as the legal branch draws in a few of those naive but earthy and determined unwilling heroes who've-actually-read-the-constitution-and-think-they-genuinely-know-what-its-all-about. So much of Capra, Ford and Lumet is about this hero, and their impossible charisma, with Tom Hanks just getting better and better with age anyway, but also getting bigger and bigger by channeling our much-needed Jimmy Stewart saviour (yes and Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy and Paul Newman, but essentially it's street-smart Jimmy), film by film. 

In a year with the Trump primary campaign this old-Republican stalwart -- beloved of Aaron Sorkin, recently in Jeff Daniels dry NEWSROOM monologues and Wozniak's humanist interjections -- actually feels potentially radical rather than dusted-off, and that carries the whole experience forwards gracefully. As important, the film makes to celebrate the Americanism of diversity of creed pretty deeply, by allowing the space for, and reveling in, the slowed-up world of Mark Rylance's laconic Glasgow stand-up of a painter-spy, a man who needs defending because he-doesn't-know-what-you're-talking-about-and-it-just-doesn't-bother-him-because-he's-not-from-here. It's a wonderful and actually a very modern turn, which also attracts most of the film's best dialogue. Of course it's worth pointing out the real dramatic point of such a 'standing man' would be that things still go very badly around him but he himself holds together, the actual inhumanity of history, while sadly for this big idea Hanks actually holds our world together as well in his spare time, making things pretty trite at times. 

Perhaps the best scene to consider in some detail is Hanks' evening home visit to Dakin Matthews' cuddly and well-meaning asshole of a judge. The main business involves his Honour putting on a bow tie, seeking out best light in two wall mirrors, with his back always to the supplicant, while the wife hovers around with a whisky glass until our hero is abruptly back on the street with the verdict "Quite a clever speech" . The blocking is doing more than half the character work here, taking us into the protagonist's effort-in-frustration with graphic directness. And yes I feel it's an achievement in interior blocking reminiscent of Ray or Hitchcock on good days, and something beautiful which happens quite routinely in formally ambitious Spielberg. Ditto the use of museum-like open spaces and bureaucratic distances around the wonderfully creepy Alan Alda's big office table at work. The great Janusz Kaminski -- almost in self-parody mode with a truly laughable number of dramatic spaces adjoining somewhere else unseen through an opaque interior window which just happens to be powerfully floodlit today -- in the end works very imposingly, maybe because Cold War chiaroscuro lies at the base of his dramatic world. 

What are the biggest problems then? As usual in American studio cinema (not wishing to let everyone else off too much, though), over-emphasis, confusion and tinkering somehow destroy the force and meaning of the last 15 minutes, again,

     1. There are too many endings to allow for any narrative discipline: is this work about the Donovan-Abel relationship and their future shared understanding, or about the wily American public misunderstanding history, or about Donovan's reputation-through-risk with his very own folks? Of course all can be allowed in to some degree, but we need a stronger p-o-v here to make it in any way forceful. 
     2. Scoring errors -- Compare the scene where Donovan and others witness the sniper shootings at the Berlin Wall from the train back to Zoo station -- which is somehow cliched but strong --- although the idea is a reminder of some dumb Disneyfied poor-old-Europeans-being-nasty-to-each-other lament, Spielberg's dramatisation is about the shared witnessing of the deaths IN THE CARRIAGE -- compare that scene with the cleverly-written echo where some Manhattan kids are seen from an NY train window jumping a yard fence. Why is this echo so underpowered? Because the 'live' sound of the train on its tracks there, which I would expect might help make us lump-throated about our freedoms -- is completely replaced by a thundering didn't-we-do-well-but-maybe-the-audience-is-dumb-so-let's-just-go-for-it round of scoring. There's hardly a moment of direct sound without underscore in the last act, and the scoring over him lying diagonally on his own bed as his wife looks on is if anything an even worse over-emphasis mistake. 
     3. This is a sharply-made film of angles and coverage about physical bids for power, but with all the money thrown at empty technical ambitions come, as so often, those shots where the camera rises gently on a crane and pulls out and away on the last few lines, with that condescending you-know-something-pretty-significant-might-have-just-happened appliqued flourish, often with a long cross-dissolve thrown it, along the way squashing any hard sound cuts. When Spielberg sticks to a strong formal idea in cinema -- e.g. the seeing of all adults without their heads, from the 5-year-old height, in ET: the Extra-Terrestrial (USA, 1982), everything tends to build resonance. When someone adds in some of this dumb 'epic' stuff for him, and then hopelessly all-of-it-at-once for the finale, yes it all tends to dissolve into so much mush. More than enough said.

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