Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Game Of Human Chess

Reel To Reel: Bridge Of Spies

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: A couple of f-bombs and Cold War-related violence

A co-worker of mine once said public defenders were a garbage chute to prison. In many cases, he's right. They are assigned a thankless task of representing various levels of scum, many of them guilty as sin, with only the time or resources to present a token defense or at least engineer a plea deal. But every so often, a huge case comes along requiring solid litigation chops. At the very least, the system needs a defender who will keep a guilty verdict from being tossed on appeal due to ineffective counsel.

It's that scenario which thrusts insurance attorney James Donovan (Hanks) into an espionage case in 1957 Cold War America. His legal superiors throw him the case of Rudolf Abel (Rylance), a Soviet Spy posing as a quiet artist in New York City. Hanks has little practical experience in criminal trials; he makes a living negotiating settlements and explaining to courts and clients why a car hitting a group of five people is one liability claim, not five. He does it with cool and logical finesse, boiling down obtuse legal principles into simple truths. Hanks is no garbage-chute lawyer. Although initially unsure about his ability, Donovan locks on to a basic principle: Abel is innocent until proven guilty, and if our Constitution means anything, it has to work for both the innocent and the guilty, especially to show the world -- especially the Soviets -- that the American legal system is not a show-trial machine.

Abel is no caricature of a foreign agent. The grandfatherly figure speaks of loss and hardship, not Communist propaganda. He and Donovan establish a mutual respect, adding to the lawyer's determination against a system determined to cut corners to put him away. Inevitably, it happens, but Donovan engineers a sentence he believes will hold value in the long run: prison versus the electric chair. The shrewdness of that sentence comes into play when the Soviets capture U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). The feds call Donovan into service once more to engineer the deal of a lifetime that will swap Powers for Abel.

Hanks' performance will remind many of you of Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird. Indeed, according to director Steven Spielberg, Peck was once attached to play Donovan when MGM considered making this story into a movie in the 1960's. (The studio ultimately abandoned the project due to Cold War politics.) Yet Hanks' Donovan is more of a negotiator than a litigator, someone who can see every move and countermove and carefully select the right words. As we see several times, that skill enables Donovan to survive complication after complication when he finds out the deal he's negotiating comes with wrinkles.

Bridge Of Spies gets props for staying a Cold War thriller and not trying to become a back-door swipe at U.S. policies in the War on Terror. Hanks' rhetoric could've easily steered it that way, but Spielberg isn't an activist director, and he knows when to pull up. The real story is the submerging of a working-class lawyer into a thick world of espionage with tripwires and trapdoors all around. Curiously, Joel and Ethan Coen did a rewrite of the original screenplay by Matt Charman, one of the few projects they have worked on without either directing or producing.

And once again, we see Tom Hanks in another comfortably-fitting role, much more so than the last time I saw him as Walt Disney in last year's Saving Mr. Banks. We've come to depend on him to deliver hero after to hero. How much more can he give us?

Friday, October 16, 2015

Don't Look Down

Reel To Reel: The Walk

Going Rate: Worth full price admission (and in IMAX 3D)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley
Rated: PG (but really more of a hard G)
Red Flags: mild language, scarily realistic scenes of heightened peril (Note: this may not be for people with vertigo or fear of high places)

In all the tributes following the 9/11 attacks, I am amazed I never heard about Philippe Petite's stunning walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It's likely many people didn't hear about it when it happened on August 7, 1974. News of Petit's walk was buried in the Watergate crisis; President Nixon would announce his resignation one day later. Still, the networks carved out some time for it.

The documentary Man On Wire chronicles Petit's walk, but not to the dizzying, dazzling degree as director Robert Zemeckis, whose biggest challenge was recreating two buildings that aren't there anymore. The film uses a mixture of CGI and reconstructions of the WTC's top floors. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt not only learned to walk on a wire but speak fluent French, and he envelops the role of Petit completely as a creatively crazy Parisian street performer who's looking for the next place to "hang my wire."

Petit breaks the fourth wall, narrating from the torch platform of the Statue of Liberty, twin towers over his shoulder. He shows us how an emergency trip to the dentist led him to a magazine chronicling the construction of the twin towers, which in the finishing phase at the time of his stunt. He immediately knows he wants to make a walk between them, something he calls "the coup."

Here's where The Walk becomes a caper film in which nobody is robbed, killed or blown up. Petit's enthusiastic sense of adventure tinged with anarchy attracts a crew, including a photographer, a math wizard who's afraid of heights, an electronics-store hustle artist, an inside man at the WTC, and yes, a girl -- a fellow street performer named Annie (Le Bon). Petit breezes us through the plotting and planning phases, where he learns as much about the towers as he can, taking countless photographs and even posing as a reporter to gather crucial information. The team develops an intricate scheme for getting up to the top of the towers over a period of more than 12 hours, running the wire across (with the help of a bow and arrow) and stabilizing it. Petit's co-conspirators must also deal with his borderline insanity and compulsions as a self-proclaimed artist and not some mere performer. His purity of intentions brings him into conflict with his mentor, Papa Rudy (Kingsley), a circus high-wire guru who instructs Philipe in the methods and secrets.

The payoff is huge. Petit's multiple walks across the wire are frighteningly realistic. We know it's a film, and we know Petit survives it, but the seamless CGI enhanced by 3D and the camera which floats around him put you up there with him. Don't eat a big lunch. This is a film you feel in the gut when you hold your breath and contemplate the extreme danger of this stunt.

Petit never directly explains to us why he chose the Twin Towers, but somehow we understand it through his eccentric personality. I also liked how the film dodged shoving a romantic subplot between Petit and Annie down our necks. This movie is tight and focused, just like the man and his wire.

Another thing you won't see: a direct reference to the 9/11 attacks. A tribute is there, however, and you'll know it when you see it.