Sunday, July 5, 2020


12. Bridge of Spies. 

Bridge of Spies poster.jpg

Hoffman: OK, well, listen, I understand attorney-client privilege. I understand all the legal gamesmanship, and I understand that's how you make your living, but I'm talking to you about something else, the security of your country. I'm sorry if the way I put it offends you, but we need to know what Abel is telling you. You understand me, Donovan? Don't go Boy Scout on me. We don't have a rule book here.
James Donovan: You're Agent Hoffman, yeah?
Hoffman: Yeah.
James Donovan: German extraction.
Hoffman: Yeah, so?
James Donovan: My name's Donovan. Irish, both sides. Mother and father. I'm Irish and you're German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing. One. Only one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution, and we agree to the rules, and that's what makes us Americans. That's all that makes us Americans. So don't tell me there's no rule book, and don't nod at me like that you son of a b****.

This bit of dialogue is the central point of the Spielberg/Hanks collaboration Bridge of Spies.  While this movie was marketed as a thriller with political intrigue, that really isn't what its about.

The story revolves around James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who has been assigned to to a pro bono case for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance in the role that won him an Oscar).  The first half of the film is an examination of civil liberties in relation to national security.  That story, in and of itself, would have been enough for a complete narrative.  But instead, Bridge of Spies takes a turn in the second half and it becomes about a potential prisoner exchange of Abel for U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) with the Soviets.

This movie falls into the category of other political Spielberg fare like The Post and Munich.  But this one is the best of those in his collection.  The main reason for this is that he is smart enough in here to not flog a political message as he did in The Post or attempt some kind of vague moral equivalency as he did in Munich.  

The only political message here is the belief in the Constitution.  Spielberg presents the protections and pitfalls of a system where even an enemy of the state gets a fair trial.  The movie never calls into question Abel's guilt.  In fact, Spielberg has a wonderful dialogue-less scene showing Abel at work in his treasonous work that is so completely fascinating and lacking any kind of obvious visual flourish.  Spielberg films his 1950's America with all of its nostalgic glory and innocence.  This is not a naive world, but there is a wholesomeness that seems worth preserving.  Even as shadowy government forces pressure Donovan to compromise Constitutional rights, the movie makes clear that Abel is trying to harm a good and free land.

The second half emphasizes this even more when Donovan must go to East Berlin right around the construction of the wall.  Spielberg does an amazing job of not only capturing the bleak blight of life under Communism, but he does so in a way that wonderfully contrasts the country Donovan has left behind.  Spielberg uses incredibly subtle visual tweaks to create a mood and tone that is oppressive.  Everything is cold and unforgiving in this Communist hell hole.  The color is all muted away.  Everyone is an actor, not showing you their true face.  

It would have been easy and lazy to try and set up an equivalency between America and the Communists.  Instead, he does something much more complicated.  He presents the good and the bad in the people on both sides and lets you, the audience, be the judge.  He does not sugar coat Communism as movies like Pan's Labyrinth did.  And he does not present our own government agencies as purely altruistic.

This is best exemplified when an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested by the Stasi and the American government is willing to let him rot in an East German prison as long as they can secure Powers.  Spielberg deftly shows Donavan's maneuvering for Pryor's release in the most intense showdown of the movie on the bridge in the final act.  The movie is about standing for what is right and good when everyone else stands against you.  And in one of the movie's most powerful moments, it shows that sometimes the only way to see those principles through is if someone, even the most unlikely person, stands with you.

11. Poltergeist

This is the most controversial choice on the list because Steven Spielberg is not credited with directing this movie.  Instead, Tobe Hooper, most famous for directing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is credited for this film.

Spielberg co-wrote the story, cast the actors, directed actors performances, produced, made most (if not all) of the storyboards, adjusted Hooper's shots while filming, made most of the creative and editorial decisions, and was on set every day of filming except for three.  There was a stipulation in Spielberg's contract that he could not officially direct anything while working on ET, which was constantly being delayed.  

I am open to being proven wrong, but Poltergeist is clearly a Spielberg movie.  Compare directing style of this movie to both Hooper and Spielberg and there is little question.  You could make the argument that Hooper was imitating Spielberg's style, but it doesn't ring true.  Look at the use of light and shadow, color and music, humor and drama, and it all screams Spielberg.

Poltergeist is a terrifying film.  But it is terrifying in a very Spielberg way.  One of the keys to much of Spielberg's work is his insatiable sense of wonder.  This film opens a window into the undiscovered country of the afterlife.  It is both beautiful and terrifying.  He draws you in with fascination but then you realize too late that this is a door you may not be able to close.

Some of the special effects might be dated, but Spielberg knows how to makes something terrifying with the camera.  I will never forget the clown sitting there staring at Robbie (Oliver Robbins).  And even worse, is when Robbie looks and the clown is gone.  The moment is so quietly scary because Spielberg is able to capture the silent terror of late night fears.  Is this all in my head?  Or is there a monster under my bed.

What's amazing to me too is how much Spielberg is able to break the maxim "Show, don't tell" and do it effectively.  We never see the inside of the ghost world, we can only hear Carol Anne's  (Heather O'Roarke) haunting echo in the TV.  When she describes she's not alone or when Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) describes "the Beast," your emotions are primed for terror.

The entire film has an ominous quality that you cannot shake.  But what is amazing and so Spielbergian is that it is not an existential dread that is fueled by nihilism.  There is an overwhelming cosmic horror at being helpless to forces beyond your control.  But there is always a continual hope that things might turn out for the best.

At its heart, Poltergeist is the story about a family in crisis.  Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) are an average middle-class couple just sleepwalking through suburban life.  But when Carol Anne gets taken, the family's complacency is shattered.  The movie explores the strain and stress of having a child in distress and how that effects the relationship of the parents, their children, and their whole lives.  Watch how Steven is worn away by his own helplessness and Diane's relentlessness is almost off-putting.  This culminates in the amazing scene where Diane must enter into the light to get her daughter.  In the most desperate and ominous line, Diane looks back at Steven, who is holding the only tether that she has to this world as she is about to plunge in.  She screams, "Steven!  Don't let go!"  These are not superheroes, but an ordinary man and woman who will most likely fail.  It never fails to put me on the edge of my seat.

The also has some amazing laughs, which Spielberg uses not to mitigate the horror but to intensify its effect.  The jokes don't make you wink at the camera.  Instead, it lowers your defenses so when the scares occur, you are not ready and it hits you even harder.  The only time we are allowed to let a joke truly sink in is in the very last shot.  And it is Spielberg's parting gift to the audience, giving them a chance to laugh together one last time after sharing so many screams.

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