Cold War strategy, served straight up

Taking a page from the annals of the Cold War, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies marks a spectacular collaborative reunion with leading man Tom Hanks, one which finds both in top form.

In 1957, not long after the execution of convicted Soviet agents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested for espionage by the FBI. The taciturn Abel offers no resistance or defense. Nevertheless, he is entitled to legal counsel.

Enter James Donovan (Hanks), an insurance attorney charged with defending Abel – although it’s strongly hinted he needn’t try too hard, just so long as he follows procedure and makes it look good. Donovan does better than that, successfully arguing that his Abel be imprisoned instead of executed.

Although Donovan weathers considerable criticism – including death threats – for this, he is presented simply as a man who follows the letter of the law as defined by the US Constitution, even at a point in time when those definitions were particularly hazy in light of the ongoing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Not long after, when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Soviet airspace, Donovan’s efforts take on new meaning. Abel is now a bargaining chip, and it falls to Donovan – at the behest of CIA director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) – to handle the secret negotiations in Berlin, where the cement is still fresh on the Wall.

Hanks, whose screen persona has long been likened to that of James Stewart, brings compassion and gravitas to his protagonist – reminiscent of Stewart in Otto Preminger’s 1959 classic Anatomy of a Murder. Donovan’s idealism is balanced by his sense of reality. When thrown into the Cold War arena, he proves most adept at gauging the temperature of the moment. His powers of observation lead him to carefully determine when to advance, when to retreat, and when to wait.

The entire cast is fine: Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Domenick Lombardozzi and Michael Gaston. But it’s the performances of Hanks and the unrecognizable Rylance, who brilliantly inhabits the role of the enigmatic Abel, that will earn the most praise, which could well translate into recognition come awards time – and that time is soon upon us.

Spielberg’s deft direction and the insightful screenplay, by Matt Charman – whose work was revised by no less than Joel and Ethan Coen – has taken what could have been a didactic big-screen history lesson and fashioned it upwards into an intelligent, trenchant and compelling drama – one fraught with energy and palpable urgency. Bridge of Spies is a class act, one of the best movies of the year. !

A house of horrors

Given the formidable talent assembled, chiefly the unmistakably gifted producer/director/co-screenwriter Guillermo del Toro, Crimson Peak shapes up – and shakes out – as a crushing disappointment, inarguably one of the season’s, and the year’s, biggest letdowns.

Taking its inspiration from a variety of sources including — but not limited to – Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hammer Films, Mario Bava, Roger Corman, Robert Towne and Dario Argento – Crimson Peak’s only true greatness lies in Dan Laustsen’s exquisite cinematography and Thomas E. Sanders’ impressive production design. Alas, the film’s visual splendor is surpassed only by its (melo)dramatic ineptitude and a draggy pacing that serves only to enhance that ineptitude.

Mia Wasikowska is every bit the Victorian heroine as Edith Cushing, who takes up residence in the crumbling English mansion of the title following her marriage to cashstrapped Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Hiddleston, who replaced Benedict Cumberbatch late in pre-production (no mystery there), favors an all-black wardrobe that recalls, no doubt intentionally, Vincent Price in Corman’s 1964 Poe adaptation Tomb of Ligeia.

Not the furtive glances between Thomas and his tight-lipped sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), nor the CGI ghost of her dead mother (played by Doug Jones!) which occasionally materializes to issue warnings, serve to goad Edith. For a character portrayed as bright and astute, she’s awfully slow on the uptake to realize something is most amiss at Crimson Peak – and not just the blood colored clay that bubbles through the snow.

Bringing up the rear is Charlie Hunnam’s Dr. McMichael, previously a potential suitor of Edith’s, who does much of the legwork (read: exposition) in delving into the mystery of Crimson Peak and its residents. The character, and subplot, are so inconsequential that to have excised them completely would not have caused a ripple in the narrative.

There’s some amusement to be had watching Chastain going “grande-dame” psycho, but del Toro is so enamored of the trappings that the story grinds to a halt before too long. At two hours, some judicious editing might not have made the film better, but it would have made it faster – and that would have been an improvement. As it stands (and sinks), Crimson Peak is beautiful to look at, but hell to watch. !