BRIDGE OF SPIES
I caught Steven Spielberg's Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies at a Friday-matinée screening alongside roughly 75 others. You could tell it was a predominantly, shall we say, mature crowd because of the volume and frequency of coughing fits, the food items being unwrapped with aching slowness, and the stage-whispered narration following louder queries of "What'd he say?!" You could also tell that, on numerous occasions, the movie was really working for this group, because for long stretches the crowd opted to remain collectively, blessedly silent.
For my money, Bridge of Spies was really working throughout, even though several moments are a bit too Spielberg-y for comfort, and even though the director, as has been his wont of late, continues to give us three or four endings when one would be sufficient. But this thoughtful, lucid, hugely entertaining film is still a near-masterpiece of tone, and of shifting tones; whether leaning toward edgy nail-biter, social critique, or verbal farce, the mood always feels absolutely appropriate for the action (or inaction) being staged. It consequently wasn't surprising, though it was heartening, to hear my audience so attentive during Spielberg's more exquisitely crafted sequences here - as when a U-2 pilot made a harrowing escape from his downed jet, or when a collection of Americans and Russians met for a tense prisoner exchange, or when co-star Mark Rylance said or did anything.
Bridge of Spies' first 10 minutes, in truth, are practically nothing but Rylance, which is about as smart a way to start a movie as possible. Opening in 1957 Brooklyn, the film introduces us to Rylance's Rudolf Abel as he works on a watercolor self-portrait in his cramped, shabby apartment. He's soon interrupted by a phone call that he wordlessly answers, and then Abel is off to the park, and to a specific park bench under which is taped a nickel. He pockets the coin and heads off to a subway terminal, where it's evident that he's being followed by a number of men dressed in overcoats and fedoras. Abel loses them in the crowd, makes his way back to his apartment, and produces the nickel, which he pries open with a razor blade. Inside the hollow coin is a compactly folded, handwritten note on which appear to be codes, which Abel reads with the aid of a magnifying glass. Moments later, federal agents burst through the door, and Abel the spy is arrested.
I've gone into such detail on this scene because it's a most unusual one in the Spielberg canon, and an incredibly telling one in terms of what he's up to in Bridge of Spies. For one thing, the entirely of this 10-minute sequence unfolds without dialogue. There's some muffled, barely audible chatter as the feds search for Abel in the terminal, but Spielberg is training us to instead pick up narrative clues through suggestion and movement and physical bearing, including the tiniest of facial twitches in Rylance's masterful deadpan. Even more astoundingly, though, these 10 minutes unfold without music, and we actually won't hear a note from composer Thomas Newman until we're nearly a half hour into the film. Many of Spielberg's movies, of course, boast glorious scores (nearly all of them by John Williams), yet too often the accompaniment is a crutch for the director - aural shorthand telling us how to feel. From Bridge of Spies' start, however, Spielberg seems to recognize how unnecessary it is for this intentionally cagey spy thriller - Newman's effective contributions are employed only sparingly - especially given the necessary quiet, and the less-necessary but equally marvelous sounds of the banter.
Because right after the prelude involving Abel, we meet James Donovan, an insurance lawyer so decent, upstanding, and passionately American he could only be played by Tom Hanks. Yet there's something funny about Donovan's first appearance here ... and I mean that literally. Instead of a traditionally noble entrance for this man we instantly know will be our hero, we find him in the midst of a heated, elliptical, and very funny disagreement with a fellow attorney (Joshua Harto) - one of those verbally precise, hilariously long-winded arguments that Coen-brothers characters are famous for. And, indeed, Joel and Ethan did a re-write of Matt Charman's original Bridge of Spies script, which I'm happy to say is wholly evident during the film. Unlike their unfathomable script doctoring for last year's Unbroken, a movie that felt determinedly anti-Coen, the siblings' gifts for piercing wit and irony are continually on display here; never before have I heard so many laughs, and earned ones, at a spy thriller. Spielberg's film is serious stuff that never treats itself too seriously. It's wise and generous enough to find the humor in Cold War paranoia without resorting to Dr. Strangelove satire, and without dismissing the era's genuine fear and horror.
As the joys of Bridge of Spies are so closely tied to the inherent surprise in its tricky, 140-minute chess match between American and Soviet agencies, I don't want to say much about the story, which finds Donovan first defending Abel in court, and then using the man as a bartering tool for the release of a captured U.S. pilot (Austin Stowell) and an American student (Will Rogers) detained in East Berlin. But a few of the movie's particulars are certainly deserving of mention, including the superb production and costume design, and the first-rate supporting cast that blends recognizable faces (Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons) with unfamiliar ones (Scott Shepherd, Mikhail Gorevoy, Peter McRobbie) to form, thus far, the movie year's most pitch-perfect ensemble. Hanks has played the prototypical Man of the People so many times by now that it's easy to forget what a smashing actor he can be when he puts his mind to it, and James Donovan is one of his most fully realized creations to date: fiercely smart, endlessly curious, lightly sardonic, and thrillingly relatable. Some of Hanks' finest moments here are simple reaction shots, such as Donovan's incredulity when he's told that he's being sent on a mission without his CIA-operative allies because it's "too dangerous" for them. He's even better, though, when facing off against a peer, and Hanks' scenes with Rylance are electrifying - the former expansive and sincere, the latter introverted and wary.
But even given Hanks and the Coens and the peerless Rylance and all the rest, Bridge of Spies is Spielberg's show, and man but he puts on a good show. It's easy to identify his traditional too-much-ness: the scene of elevated-train passengers staring at Donovan with contempt, their different newspapers all strategically opened to the same story; the brazen slapstick when Berlin waitresses plop down plates and plates of Donovan's "big American breakfast." Yet such moments are aberrations here. More frequently, as that dialogue- and music-free prelude suggests, Spielberg relies on insinuation and subtlety and minor keys; the director's compositions are still recognizably grand, and recognizably his, but there's a new ease and lack of oppression behind them. When the U-2 pilot has to make the horrific decision to either kill himself or potentially allow himself to be captured (and consequently branded a traitor), Spielberg gives us a lightning-quick shot of a black-and-white photo of the pilot's girlfriend that's in his cockpit, and we immediately know what his decision will be. In the past, Spielberg would've lingered on that photo, and the John Williams music would swell, to make sure none of us missed the point. But the director seems to trust us, and himself, in Bridge of Spies, and in doing so he's made an ode to America that's most definitely worth saluting.
To the delight of her fans, and I'm a major one, Bridge of Spies' Amy Ryan also appears in the weekend debut Goosebumps, director Rob Letterman's family comedy inspired by R.L. Stine's series of genially spooky, phenomenally successful children's novels. Entering the scene looking chic and sexy in a black leather jacket, Ryan is wonderful as the teen hero's profoundly, divinely uncool mom, and I'd call her presence the best thing about the film if the fabulous Jillian Bell didn't also show up, playing Ryan's bedazzling-obsessed sister. (One can only imagine the parents of this dream team of flaky sibs. Catherine O'Hara and Michael McKean, perhaps?) Dylan Minnette is solid and empathetic as our lead, Ryan Lee and Mila-Kunis-in-training Odeya Rush are his endearing pals, and terrific comic actors keep popping up, with Amanda Lund and Timothy Simons especially amusing as dimwit cops, and Ken Marino ensuring that each of his 30 total seconds on-screen is a gem. As for Jack Black, who portrays Stine, he's crafted a bizarre, somewhat off-putting accent that's somewhere between British prig and "Get off my lawn!" codger, but still manages to score several laughs. All told, the humans keep the proceedings humming along nicely. Too bad that, in the end, Letterman's movie doesn't seem much interested in them.
Even by the relatively low standards of dopey kiddie slapsticks, Goosebumps is pretty dopey, although the central narrative - which involves Stine's books coming damagingly to life - does at least start well. There's some giddy, Gremlins-esque creepiness and hilarity when Black and the teens are assaulted by a battalion of lawn gnomes (one of whom, in a touch Joe Dante would relish, gets eviscerated in a garbage disposal), and the effects are equally goofy/startling in the sequences featuring a gargantuan praying mantis. But while there are clever bits throughout, such as the kids' ill-advised attempt to make a speedy getaway on a Zamboni, the movie begins to feel repetitive awfully early. The monsters may change, but the many attack/chase/near-miss beats feel exactly the same, and while the chief villain, a ventriloquist's dummy, may give the littlest of kids the shivers, his tiresome, unfunny puns - and the uninspired nasal screech Black employs to voice him - make the doll easy to dismiss. With its built-in jokiness and frequent pauses for romance and sentiment, there isn't enough threat or interest, comedic or otherwise, to duly honor Stine's literary series. Still, Danny Elfman provides a jaunty score that could've come from the Elfman heyday of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, while the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski boasts wicked fringe touches, such as Black's Stine taking refuge in the high-school theatre that just happens to be housing a stage adaptation of The Shining. (Now that I'd kill to see.) And despite the rib-nudging product placement, I was glad to see Stine's books referenced with such reverence and delight. Goosebumps may be wanting in several regards, but it's hard to wholly turn up your nose at a screen entertainment that's also a 100-minute commercial for the joys of books.
At an early, "emotional" high point in the pro-faith football drama Woodlawn, schlumpy Sean Astin's self-professed sports chaplain Hank Erwin (the real-life dad of Woodlawn directors Andrew and Jon Erwin) begins a motivational speech to a team of troubled high-school football players, and an hour later - not a real-time hour, thank goodness - the team is assembled around Hank holding hands and placing supportive arms on shoulders, and agreeing to give their lives, and their team's future, to Jesus. Their coach (Nic Bishop) witnesses this moment and considers it a miracle. We do, too. But considering we've heard only a few snippets of Hank's oration, and none of the football players are allowed, now or ever, to explain the "why" behind their need for a group bear hug, it's a bothersome miracle. Were the kids simply hypnotized into submission by the alternately pleading and condescending whine of Astin's speaking voice? Were they intimidated by the knowledge that Astin played Rudy?
I really shouldn't be so flip toward Woodlawn considering it absolutely could've been worse, and I can name plenty of secular gridiron dramas - We Are Marshall, The Replacements, Radio ... - that are way, way worse. But the Erwin brothers' latest inspirational outing is particularly vexing because it's so claustrophobic. We see the effects of Hank's preaching on the coach and star player Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), but not even one other member of their team is allowed a subplot, or a narrative detour, or even a line demonstrating how or why he chose to accept Christ into his heart. From the get-go, Woodlawn is racially and politically charged, set as it is during the height of Civil Rights activity in the Alabama of 1973. (The film opens with harrowing, beautifully chosen documentary clips of racial unrest and talking-head footage underlining the perceived impossibility of equal rights in the South.) Yet the Erwins shy away from their subject's grandeur and potential greatness. The larger picture is ignored in favor of watching the African-American Tony continually learn, and re-learn, to put his trepidation and fears into God's hands, and witnessing the coach gradually accept God's love - which, in one excruciating scene, he does by commandeering the attentions of an all-black Sunday-morning congregation mid-service and demanding to be baptized. (I don't know how such a scene might've actually played out in 1973 Alabama, but I'm betting that the entire congregation standing and applauding wouldn't have been the end result.)
Yet even though their movie is simplistic and fraudulent and gross for a whole bunch of reasons, the Erwins' collective heart is most assuredly in the right place, and it's relatively easy to forgive, or more accurately absolve, many of the film's deficiencies. Football, thankfully, is an inherently cinematic sport, and happily, the Erwins mostly know where to put their camera during the numerous on-screen games; the football sequences are kinetic and alive. Beyond the production design, we're given only fleeting suggestions of early-'70s vérité, but there is one priceless scene of Tony refusing to shake hands in a photo op for Governor George Wallace. And in a lovely rarity for faith-based entertainments, there isn't a single portrayal here (except maybe for Astin's) that's less than good, and many more that are far better. Bishop could make his coach's fundamental decency sail on the actor's uncanny resemblance to JFK alone. Yet he also gives a fantastically thoughtful, committed performance throughout; Castille is tough-minded yet heartrending as his protégé; and there are smart, pointed turns by the likes of Sherri Shepherd, Lance E. Nichols, Joy Brunson, and Jon Voight, the latter showing up at the very beginning and very end as a collegiate coach in a series of increasingly ugly hat/jacket combos. Plus, we're treated to C. Thomas Howell as Bishop's initially racist, eventually endearing rival. Cackling, braying, and joyously chewing the scenery, Howell is more enjoyable in Woodlawn than he ever was in his '80s movies - though whether his appearance here is due to love for the script or just contrition for starring in Soul Man is open to debate.