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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Hanks’

(Yes, I know, I know: you wait years and years for reviews of NASA-themed films and then three come along in a row. Ridiculous, isn’t it?)

Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 is not the usual stuff of the Sunday afternoon revivals which I am so often to be found enjoying at the Phoenix in Jericho. The Vintage Sundays strand normally limits itself to either classic or cult movies, with recent seasons focusing on films by Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Studio Ghibli. All solid stuff and more-or-less guaranteed to attract a crowd. They’ve chosen to follow this up, however, with a season of ‘Space’ films, possibly to connect with the release of First Man – and so the revival schedule has been filled with a fairly eclectic mix of titles including The Right Stuff, Moon, Alien, and the original Solaris, concluding with the year’s second showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Apollo 13 fits in rather nicely with the rest of that bunch, despite the fact it is rather more mainstream and modern than the typical Sunday classic. That said, it is one of those movies which is perhaps older than you think – 23 years, at the time of writing – and one which perhaps did not get quite the critical plaudits it deserved.

The film opens with a swift recap of the main beats of the Apollo programme prior to the Apollo 13 mission: specifically, what later became known as the Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts were killed, and the triumph of the successful Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. As the story gets going, Pete Conrad’s Apollo 12 has successfully completed its mission, and the onus is now on Apollo 13, to be commanded by Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks). Lovell and his team have been bumped up the schedule by an unforeseen medical problem, and he and fellow astronauts Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingley (Gary Sinise) are working against the clock to be ready.

Lovell is determined that the mission will go ahead, despite some inauspicious omens – the thirteenth Apollo, due to launch at thirteen minutes past the thirteenth hour, and enter lunar orbit on the thirteenth day of the month. But the bad luck just keep coming – Mattingley is exposed to measles only days before the mission is due to launch, and Lovell is forced to replace him with the back-up pilot, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).

Apollo 13 launches as planned, although there is a technical issue with one of the booster engines. ‘Looks like we’ve had our glitch for this mission,’ says someone in Ground Control. To say they are mistaken is an understatement: a routine procedure to stir the contents of one of the Command Module’s fuel tanks results in a significant explosion and the loss of electrical power in the spacecraft.

The mission almost immediately becomes one not of landing on the Moon, but somehow managing to get the astronauts back to Earth alive. Efforts on the ground are overseen by no-nonsense flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), who is insistent that failure is not an option. But the list of challenges faced by NASA is immense…

(I would do the usual ‘Spoiler Alert: they get home safely’ gag here, but for one thing I used it with First Man just the other day, and for another Ron Howard recalls one member of a test audience being very unimpressed with the movie, complaining about the predictable Hollywood ending and saying it was unrealistic that the crew survived.)

I suppose you could look at the relative failure of Apollo 13 at the Oscars and argue that it’s just more evidence that the Academy simply doesn’t like space films (I wouldn’t really call Apollo 13 science fiction, despite the fact it was treated as such by some elements of the media at the time). The 1996 Oscars were a good year for costume dramas and gritty realism – Braveheart and Leaving Las Vegas were two of the higher-profile winners – and I suppose there was also the issue that Tom Hanks had won Best Actor twice on the trot just recently, and nobody could face the prospect of another of his rather idiosyncratic acceptance speeches.

Yet this is a notably good film, an example of the Hollywood machine working at its best. This is a film which is polished without being too glib or slick, and one which knows how to tell a story without becoming melodramatic. (I believe numerous small changes were made to the real course of events, but nothing too outrageous.)

Walking to the bus after watching the revival of Apollo 13, I asked the intern who had accompanied me why they thought it only took 25 years for a movie about the mission to be made, while Apollo 11 ended up waiting nearly half a century. They admitted it was a good question (well, naturally), and after some thought suggested it’s just a more interesting story.

Well, I would agree with that, of course. ‘The mission goes almost exactly as planned’ is not a thrilling hook for a movie, which may go some way to explaining a few of Damien Chazelle’s more unexpected creative decisions in his Armstrong movie. The Apollo 13 story, on the other hand, offers a gripping ‘brave men struggling to get home alive’ theme, plus many opportunities for showcasing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of NASA in overcoming the numerous problems faced by the crew (the sequence in which a gang of junior NASA staffers are given the job of working out how to build a functioning oxygen filtration system out of, basically, a pile of junk, apparently inspired the long-running TV game show Scrapheap Challenge).

And the tone is pretty much what you would expect, too – respectful, patriotic, carefully very mainstream. The film opens with voice-over from Walter Cronkite, for many years the most trusted man in America, and the subtext is clear: this is what really happened in this story, the definitive historical version. In this respect it’s quite different from the more artful approach taken by Chazelle, even though the subject matter is obviously similar – some characters appear in both movies, most notably Armstrong, Aldrin, and Lovell himself.

It was actually slightly startling to watch this movie again and see Tom Hanks looking so young (relatively speaking). This movie was made at the time he was cementing his image as the great everyman of American cinema, not to mention one of the great screen actors of his generation, and he leads a very good cast with considerable aplomb. While most of the film is focused on the fact that this was, in the end, a successful rescue effort, Hanks never quite lets you forget that this is, on one level at least, a rather bittersweet story – Lovell never got to go to the Moon in the way so many of his peers did.

In the end Apollo 13 is simply a very technically proficient film, driven along by excellent production values and performances, with a solid script at the heart of it all. It is certainly one of Ron Howard’s best films, but then my issue with Howard has always been that he is one of those safe-pair-of-hands guys, rather than someone with a distinctive artistic sensibility of his own. I was glad to see Apollo 13 again and happy to watch it on the big screen, but I would still say this is a very good piece of commercial film-making rather than a truly great movie.

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I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I’m getting a little bit tired of having to start virtually every new film review by talking about the ‘unique moment’ which America and the rest of western society currently seems to be going through. Maybe this is not in fact a moment; maybe things really have undergone a permanent and fundamental change, one way or another. I would submit it is really too early to tell. Nevertheless, it certainly seems to be the case that Hollywood believes a unique moment is in progress – based on the films that are coming out in time for this year’s awards season, where being the right kind of bien pensant is a reliable route towards success.

Then again, exactly what is this moment which I can’t seem to stop going on about? Is it the Trump moment? The Weinstein moment? The Black Lives Matter moment? Are these separate things or all facets of the same thing? Once again, I think it’s really too early to be sure, but having a good go at making an oblique comment on several of these topics is Steven Spielberg’s The Post – the unusual speed with which Spielberg got this production together and into cinemas revealing the extent to which the director believes it’s a topical movie.

And maybe it is, for all that it is mainly set in 1971 and concerns the Vietnam War. The title refers to the Washington Post, which as the story starts is generally regarded as a local, family paper, published by Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who for most of her life has been a society hostess rather than a businesswoman. Rather more experienced and pugnacious is her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), a career newsman constantly on the lookout for a major scoop.

And when one comes, it is to their competitors at the New York Times: a disillusioned government analyst leaks papers relating to the US government’s involvement in Vietnam and the fact that the war was deemed unwinnable by the mid 1960s. Richard Nixon’s White House immediately takes out an injunction against the NYT, stalling publication on the ground this publication is a threat to national security.

But the newshounds of the Post have also been on the case and indeed managed to track down the source of the leak, getting their hands on thousands of pages of classified documents with the potential to seriously embarrass every American administration going back decades. However, the Post is also undergoing a stock market flotation and a potentially controversial, perhaps even illegal move like this is guaranteed to scare the investors. Bradlee is certain that the Post should publish; Graham’s lawyers and most of the board of the company are equally convinced this will be a disastrous move. So which way is Katharine Graham going to jump…?

Well, you can probably guess the answer, all things considered, and it is to Spielberg and his writers’ considerable credit that he has managed to make a gripping and pacy thriller out of a story where the conclusion is never particularly in doubt. Then again, the film is not so much about the story as it is about the message, which is one about the importance of freedom of the press and its role in holding the powerful to proper account.

The subtext of this movie is so clear that even a very stable genius could probably work it out – it’s about a clash between a hostile, mendacious president (Nixon is presented as a shadowy, malevolent presence) and the principled heroes of the fourth estate. I suppose the period setting of the film provides a certain camouflage – there are various scenes where the setting of type is lovingly dwelt upon, and the key moment at which the presses finally thunder into life – but it’s all still very applicable to the current situation. Folk in the news media, especially the press, are not so much fake as paladins of probity with an impeccable regard for the truth. (Did I mention what good reviews The Post has received from newspaper critics?)

On top of this, the movie manages the neat trick of attaching itself to two current causes celebre, by also managing to say something about the place of women in society, too. Quite apart from the fact that both Graham and Bradlee were to some extent Washington insiders who had to choose where their loyalties truly lay, the film also makes much of the challenges she faces trying to be taken seriously as a businesswoman: during key moments of challenge she is literally surrounded by men, in a hardly accidental piece of composition, and equally finds herself with an honour guard of young women in her moments of triumph.

Of course, as this is a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, you know it is going to have a certain heft and quality about it. Spielberg works his usual magic of taking a story which could have been a little dry and portentous and making it accessible, funny, and actually quite thrilling in places. Hanks in particular is on top form, but Streep is also doing good work (not at all over-rated, on this evidence), and there’s an ensemble of fine actors further down the cast list, including people like Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Bruce Davison and Sarah Paulson.

There is a tendency for films dealing with big events in recent American history to come over here and feel slightly incongruous, largely because the events depicted have no resonance for British viewers – a recent example would be Detroit, which appeared accompanied by a stentorian ‘It’s time we learned the TRUTH!’ ad campaign, to which my response was, ‘the truth about what, exactly?’ The Post manages to evade this pitfall, partly by dint of its superior storytelling, partly through focusing on more universal issues of truth and freedom. Sometime members of the current American administration have occasionally referred to the media as the real opposition party, and it may be they have a point. The Post is essentially the heaviest of Hollywood heavyweights coming together and making a point about what the United States is supposedly about, and it’s as effective a statement as you might expect. This movie concludes with the beginning of the end of the presidency it depicts, and if it doesn’t wind up playing a role in bringing down Trump, it won’t be for want of trying.

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Things have got to the point where, if you’re not paying close attention, you could almost start to get Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood mixed up with each other: both hugely respected actor-directors, both of about the same vintage, both rather less frequently seen before the camera these days… and, it should really be said, both of them perhaps not quite delivering the goods with quite the same consistency as was the case back in the 70s and 80s (your mileage may obviously differ, and it would be remiss of me not to admit that Eastwood is currently on the biggest hot streak of his career in terms of simple commercial success). It’s still quite rare that either of them serves up something genuinely bad, but as often as not these days their films are most likely to make you go ‘Mm,’ and change the subject onto something a little more prepossessing. I offer as the latest exhibit Clint Eastwood’s new movie Sully, which rather puts me in mind of an episode of the long-running medi-soap Casualty.

sully

Or, more precisely, something I once heard said about Casualty by a writer who briefly worked on the show. Doing his research, by both watching old episodes and hanging around in A&E departments, he came to the conclusion that Casualty (the show) was filled with people who had accidents which conveniently allowed them to articulate whatever personal and emotional issues they happened to be going through, while Casualty (the department) was simply filled with people who had had inconvenient (at best) accidents. So he started writing episodes which he felt were truer to life – ones where the central crisis, rather than serving to unveil a secret conflict or enable personal growth, just happened to unsuspecting, undeserving people. And he lasted about two episodes before they sacked him. Fiction ideally demands outrageous drama.

Reality generally has different requirements to fiction, of course, which is one of the main things you notice about Sully. This presents itself as a docudrama about the 2009 ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ incident in which a passenger jet made a water landing on the Hudson River after both its engines were disabled in an encounter with a flock of birds. Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart play the pilots of the troubled plane; Eckhart has the bigger moustache but Hanks gets the bigger role, as Chesley Sullenberger (our research indicates this really is his name), a hugely experienced aviation professional who finds himself wholly unprepared for the media and administrative circus which consumes his life immediately after the crash – or, as he is very careful to describe it, ‘water landing’.

I’ve already inflicted one overelaborate metaphor on you, but never mind: here’s another one. Imagine watching two men build a dry stone wall. Between them these guys have been building things for seventy or eighty years. You are in the presence of two of the greats. Every move they make is nothing less than measured and precise and immaculate. What they are doing is effectively beyond criticism. However, they are still building a dry stone wall, which is not the most exciting structure in the annals of architecture, and nothing they do can really distract you from that for too long.

In other words, while Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger – careful, reserved, precise, particular, dry as an old biscuit, an unlikely candidate to even have a nickname – may be exactly the kind of man you want flying the plane next time you travel by air, he’s not exactly sparkling material when it comes to a true-life movie drama. All right, so he has a few traumatic flashbacks and nightmares, and it’s suggested he’s a bit economical with the actualite when it comes to using his first job to promote his second (aviation safety consultant), but that’s still pretty slim pickings when it comes to putting together a movie even as brief as this one (a practically bite-sized 96 minutes).

It may also have been an issue that all the really exciting stuff in this film technically happens at the start of the story, which would explain a slightly curious structural choice where the actual movie begins post-crash – sorry, post-water landing, and then goes on to showcase the incident and its aftermath in the middle of the movie. And then show the plane going down once again just before the closing credits, presumably because it’s such an exciting bit the audience aren’t going to complain about watching it a second time.

And I suppose they’re right, because the post-goose-meets-jet stuff is far and away the most interesting and engaging part of the film. The rest of it is just grey and lacking in a clear focus: it could be about how the media sensationalises everything, even things which were pretty sensational to begin with, or about the loss of trust and simple human decency in a machine-dominated world, or the importance of remembering to take our basic humanity into account. It certainly feels like a film with A Big Message, it’s just not certain what that message is. Like any other American film about a plane-related incident these days, it also feels just a bit po-faced and reverential. I’m not surprised that the transport safety people have been complaining about this movie, given they are presented as a sort of Spanish Inquisition (no, I didn’t expect that either), but this entirely contrived plot thread is all the film can come up with when it comes to generating actual conflict and drama. However, it’s telling that their pursuit of Sully, which forms the closest thing the film has to a conventional climax, is essentially resolved by watching people play Flight Simulator, which isn’t that exciting when you play it yourself, let alone watch as a spectator.

Tom Hanks is one of the great actors, and he’s on full power here – and Clint Eastwood is one of the great directors, and likewise he does nothing wrong (and, fair’s fair, this film has given him the biggest domestic opening of his career). Nobody really drops the ball here, not Eckhart, not Laura Linney as Sully’s wife… well, I suppose you might want to have a word with the screenwriter, perhaps. It’s just that, as Sully himself observes, the incident only lasted 208 seconds, and the rest of the events just aren’t that dramatic enough to sustain a full-length movie narrative. All the things that make this exactly the sort of air-travel incident you’d choose to be involved in are the same ones that keep it from being a genuinely gripping drama.

 

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Here’s a (probably borderline) interesting thing: both the movies of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons came out on basically the same weekend in the middle of May (albeit three years apart), an extremely reliable release date for something aspiring to be a solid summer blockbuster. You can’t argue with success, one way or another, and so here we are with another film from the same people – Inferno, directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks, yadda yadda yadda. And yet, as a glance out of your window may already have revealed, we are in the middle of October, much more nebulous territory for films looking to make pots of money, and in some ways the preserve of those actually aspiring to receive a little critical acclaim and recognition. Has a multi-hundred-million dollar take gone to everyone’s heads? Or is this genuinely a more sophisticated and classy film than its antecedents?

inferno

Um, no it’s not. But it does have a go at being a rattling good yarn (I believe this is the term). One of the good things about these films is that you get the benefits of Dan Brown’s command of story structure without needing to be exposed to his prose style, and – following some prefatory material about someone falling off a tower in Florence while being chased by mysterious agent-types – we get a properly barnstorming opening, as maverick symbologist (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: hmmm) Robert Langdon (Hanks) wakes up in hospital with Movie Amnesia, having had a bang on the head. Rather to his surprise Hanks finds he is in Florence.

Events proceed apace as a slightly psychotic policewoman turns up and starts shooting at Hanks, leading him to take cover with the fortuitously English and pulchritudinous ER doctor, played by Felicity Jones. Sure enough, it seems that Langdon has got himself tangled up in another of those shadowy conspiracies he is so prone to encountering.

Basically, visionary cleverclogs Bert Zobrist (Ben Foster – he’s had a busy year) has come to the conclusion that the planet is hopelessly overpopulated and made what looks rather like a TED Talk to share his thoughts. Unlike most people who make TED Talks, however, Zobrist has also cooked up a lethal virus which will resolve the situation by killing off half the world’s population. (He really should have checked with Professor Hans Rosling first.)

However, Zobrist’s ability to carry out his cruel-to-be-kind scheme is limited as he fell off a tall building at the start of the film, and no-one knows where the virus has been hidden. Except, of course, that before his death, Zobrist created a trail of terribly erudite and subtle clues, all referencing the works of Dante, which will ultimately lead to the location of the virus. (As you would.) So the authorities have got Langdon in to find this very valuable, not to mention spectacularly dangerous, commodity. But is there something else going on? Did Zobrist have a back-up plan which is even now unfolding? Could be…

Well, Awix’s handy guide to the Robert Langdon films runs as follows: Da Vinci Code – a bit weird but actually quite thought-provoking and certainly original, in its own way. Angels and Demons – utterly ridiculous but secretly quite fun. Inferno may not feature skydiving pontiffs or photon torpedoes under the Vatican, but it definitely inclines more towards the preposterously daft end of the Dan Brown spectrum.

Things adhere very much to the style of the previous films, with a lot of breathless jogging from one art treasure to another while Hanks holds forth on the history of whatever it is they’re going to see – I’ve made the mistake of over-doing my schedule on a holiday and ended up having a similar experience, come to think of it – and then some pointing. One sequence sees Hanks and Jones fleeing a team of heavily armed men while Hanks tries to complete an anagram; this is kind of the level of the whole thing.

While it is, as I believe I mentioned, almost absurdly over-plotted and with a few truly outrageous twists along the way (the main one of which I must confess to having figured out well in advance of its appearance), on the whole this remains a pacy, slick and good-looking film – very much a potential apocalypse sponsored by the Italian and Turkish tourist boards. It may be nonsense, but it’s such busy and engaging nonsense that you never completely focus on this, though it’s a near thing.

Hanks is his usual personable self and a steady presence at the centre of the film; I don’t think he quite gets the material he deserves, though. As befits a film on this kind of scale, a top-rate cast has been assembled to try and keep a straight face around him – as well as Foster (who’s in the film an impressive amount considering he dies in the first five minutes), there’s Omar Sy, but my award for Best Thing in a Dodgy Movie goes to Irffan Khan, who delivers a bizarrely deadpan comic performance as the leader of a fairly improbable secret organisation. Howard’s direction is as competent as ever, and he stages some interestingly nightmarish hallucinations at the start of the film – these sort of fade away as it continues, which I thought was a bit of a shame, as if nothing else they gave the film more of an identity of its own.

I’m not sure what else to say about Inferno: the actual content of the story may be implausible cobblers, but the narrative structure itself is utterly sound, and there’s enough talent involved for the film to pass the time rather agreeably, provided you disconnect your critical faculties. (I’m still not sure if there’s some significance to a film about overpopulation ending with someone having a baby.) I will be utterly staggered if Inferno has any presence in the major categories of next year’s awards season, but it should probably make a tidy sum. A solid piece of rather hokey mainstream entertainment.

 

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Demographers take note: we are living through days in which a Polish-language rom-com entitled Planeta Singli can find enough of an audience to hang on in mainstream UK cinemas for at least a fortnight, while an Anglophone movie, starring Tom Hanks – who is, lest we forget, one of the biggest movie stars of the modern age – barely manages a one-and-done residency. However, it seems this is no mere fluke of geography – Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King has taken a bath in virtually every territory where it has been released, making less money than any other film in Hanks’ career. Adding to this the fact that this movie has hung around for a few years prior to being released, and the signs are there that a fairly spectacular disaster may well be on the cards.

hologram

The sense of a film which has perhaps missed its moment is only compounded by the very-recent-past setting, although to be fair this is mostly left implicit – the source novel, by Dave Eggers, is apparently set in a post-financial crash, pre-Arab Spring 2010. Hanks plays Alan Clay, an IT executive and salesman looking to re-energise his career. To this end he exploits a rather tenuous connection and flies off to Saudi Arabia.

The King of the KSA is intent on conjuring a new city out of nowhere, rather in the same manner modern Dubai has been created, and Clay’s company is bidding to provide state-of-the-art IT and communications equipment to the project. However, all is not well as our man arrives – his tech team are not receiving the support they need from the locals, and there’s no sign of the King – who they will be presenting to – actually putting in an appearance at the site.

Matters are only compounded by Clay’s stressful family situation – he’s struggling to support his daughter through college – a few nagging medical issues, and his habit of sleeping through the alarm clock. This leads him to making a connection with a young driver, Yousef (Alexander Black), who shows him a slightly different side of the country…

Well, I have to say that ‘will our hero manage to successfully flog a holographic teleconferencing system to the House of Saud?’ is not the most naturally enticing of premises for a major movie, and there is definitely a sense in which Hanks is out of his natural territory – this isn’t an American studio picture, but a German co-production, and apart from the star and Black most of the significant roles are played by European performers. About the most famous of these is Ben Whishaw, who is in the movie for literally about thirty seconds yet has still managed to bag the coveted ‘and’ spot.

And the whole film has the slightly indy feel of a co-production – it rather reminded me of films like This Must Be The Place, good looking and made with polish, but rather stronger on character and atmosphere than on actual plot and incident. Hanks has various serio-comic escapades, inevitably meaning he misses the bus every morning and has to get to know Yousef a bit better, writes emails to his daughter (thus enabling some good voice-over stuff from Hanks), finds himself out of his depth at a surprisingly high-octane party at the Danish embassy, gets to know a female Saudi doctor (Sarita Choudhury), and so on.

It’s all rather bitty, and some of the bits are better than others – it kicks off with Hanks delivering a rendition of Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime, which he does with his customary gusto, but in the end it settles down to be about a romance between Hanks and Choudhury, which manages the neat trick of being both rather predictable and still somewhat implausible.

You wonder what made Tom Hanks take on a film like this. (You wonder how a film like this managed to land a megastar like Tom Hanks.) Well, you can perhaps see why this kind of project would appeal to an actor like Hanks – the central character is in virtually every second of the film and does demand a performance of great range and skill from the actor responsible. That’s an interesting challenge, and to be fair to Hanks it’s one which he rises to with consummate skill. Even when the film is at its least focused and most improbable, Hanks is there, giving it his considerable best, keeping it watchable and engaging.

I’ve heard it said that the mark of a great actor is that they can be good in a bad movie. I really wouldn’t call A Hologram for the King an outright bad movie, but the fact that it isn’t is almost solely due to Tom Hanks – it’s probably stretching a point to say that A Hologram for the King is basically just Tom Hanks’ performance and not much else, but at the same time it is the one and only element of the film which is inarguably accomplished, entertaining, and memorable. Nevertheless, this is still a very curious little film which I suspect will end up being very little remembered.

 

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Some people mark the turn of the year by observing the flight of birds, the passage of the seasons, and the signs to be drawn from the sky. I, on the other hand, prefer to keep track of what’s on at the local cinema and take it from there. Currently we are receiving a range of seasonal movies, plus what I can only describe as quality blockbusters. Christmas may be here soon, but – I am certain – film industry types are more concerned by the fact that awards season isn’t that far behind it.

It occurs to me that the kind of film which aspires to win Oscars isn’t anything like as certain a commercial bet as the typical big dumb derivative summer blockbuster. It’s a measure of how important critical respect is to the major studios that every year they sink millions of dollars into films like Foxcatcher – a true-life crime story about Olympic wrestling, not traditionally a commercially popular subgenre – and various other worthy and high-minded projects, when they could be doing more superhero movies and remakes with a more guaranteed profit margin. These films do constitute a gamble – the ones that win major awards will receive a push at the box office as a result, but the ones that don’t may struggle.

Then again, sensible studios invest wisely: which brings us to one of the first quality blockbusters off the blocks this year, Bridge of Spies. You can’t always judge a film based on the names of the key personnel, but any film starring Tom Hanks, directed by Steven Spielberg, and co-written by the Coen brothers must have something going for it, surely?

BRIDGE-OF-SPIES

The story opens in late 50s America, with the Cold War at its height and espionage enthusiastically pursued by both parties. One such Soviet agent, Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance), is captured by the FBI in New York, and put on trial for his activities. It is politically important that Abel is seen to be given a fair trial, and given the awkward and unpopular job of defending him is Jim Donovan (Hanks), an insurance lawyer.

Donovan does his best but it quickly becomes clear that he has been retained simply for the purpose of keeping up appearances – and no matter how token a figure he is, it doesn’t stop his family from being on the receiving end of hostility from other American citizens who see him as a Communist sympathiser.

Going on in parallel with this is the story of the training of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a US air force pilot being prepared to take a U2 spy plane on a reconnaissance mission over the USSR. When the mission takes place and Powers is shot down, an awkward international situation threatens – but with the US and the USSR each holding one of the other’s agents prisoner, there is the chance of engineering an unofficial exchange. An unofficial exchange requires an unofficial negotiator to broker it, of course, and Donovan finds himself flying off to a newly-partitioned Berlin, responsible for bringing about Powers’ safe retrieval…

There’s a magical experience which happens too rarely at the cinema – that moment when you suddenly become totally assured that you are watching a film made by people who completely understand what they’re doing, and that as a result you can just relax and sit back, safe in the knowledge that you’re in for a piece of superb entertainment. I am happy to say that I had one of those moments very early on in Bridge of Spies.

This is possibly even more noteworthy given that this is – in theory at least – a thriller, but one where many of the scenes concern middle-aged men having complicated discussions with each other in various offices. There are virtually no action sequences worthy of the name, and to anyone with a reasonable grasp of modern history the conclusion of the movie should hold few surprises. And yet Spielberg has managed to make a film which is both gripping and genuinely entertaining.

Early on in his career, Tom Hanks was whisked off to have his photo taken with an elderly James Stewart, which if nothing else displayed remarkable prescience on the part of the publicist involved: Hanks is the closest thing modern American cinema has to Stewart, no-one else can project that kind of everyman quality while still remaining a star, no-one else can do quiet decency in quite the same understated way. Hanks is on top form here – he is basically playing the conscience of America for most of the film, but he does it without once seeming hokey.

What’s also very special is the relationship between Donovan and Abel and the bond that develops between them. Rylance takes an incredibly introverted and phlegmatic man and turns him into a memorable character, and the scenes between him and Hanks are captivating: it’s deeply thrilling to see the great American movie star and the brilliant British stage actor bringing their different styles to the film, and watching them combine so flawlessly.

Then again, there’s barely a single dud performance in the entire film – the minor characters Hanks encounters on his mission are all wonderful little miniatures of writing and performance, each one memorable in their own way. Turn of the 60s America and Germany are both painstakingly recreated, and Spielberg eschews flashy look-at-me directing in favour of simply telling the story.

There is, I suppose, a sort of God-bless-America-aren’t-we-wonderfulness to some of the scenes in this film, which some viewers may find a bit difficult to stomach – in a less-accomplished film, it might not sit easily in a story which to some extent is concerned with the way in which American realities do not live up to American idealism. And, given the nature of the story, this is primarily a fairly talky film about middle-aged men discussing the politics of five and a half decades ago. Nevertheless, as far as this sort of film goes, Bridge of Spies does it superbly – it’s hard to imagine how it could be any better, to be honest. It’s a film that deserves to do very well at the box office, regardless of how many rewards it picks up, and I hope it gets the success it deserves.

 

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If you were of a sour, baleful, Daily Mail-ish disposition, you might well find something very disagreeable in the current trend towards films which are essentially historical accounts not of the lives of great people, nor of the details of significant events, but simply of the making of other films. And I suppose you might have a point – at the very least it smacks of creative conservatism, if not an outright dearth of ideas. Already this year we have had Hitchcock, which was essentially behind-the-scenes on Psycho, while making a solid pitch for the quality-Christmas-non-Elf-fixated box office is John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks, which is deeply concerned with the genesis of the movie version of Mary Poppins.

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Emma Thompson plays Mrs P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins stories. The main plot of the movie is set in the early 60s, by which point she has been fending off expressions of interest in the film rights to her work for decades. Now, however, bankruptcy looms, and rather than lose her home she is obliged to depart for California, to work on a script for a film with the creative guys at Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney himself is played by Tom Hanks. Disney is genial, avuncular, folksy and charming – Mrs Travers is prickly, particular, formal and demanding (she thinks Disney’s life’s work is vulgar and frivolous). Both of them are used to getting their own way, and so a titanic, if fairly good-mannered, clash of wills is in prospect.

Intercut with all this is another narrative concerning Mrs Travers’ own childhood in Australia five decades earlier. This focuses on her complex relationship with her father (played by Colin Farrell), an affectionate man, but also a somewhat irresponsible alcoholic. Inevitably it is this storyline which illuminates and to some extent explains the character of the adult Mrs Travers, though the manner in which this is handled is variable. Sometimes the film is quite subtle, at other points it is not – a scene with Mrs Travers objecting to Mr Banks (the father in the Poppins film) wearing a moustache is closely followed by one where we see Farrell explaining to his daughter why it is so important that he shaves.

It seems to me that there are two main approaches you can take to Saving Mr. Banks, and your choice here will largely dictate your response to the film. Either it is a touching biographical excavation of an often-overlooked literary figure, or a ghastly piece of self-regarding publicity for the Disney corporation.

Accusations that this film is basically a two-hour-plus promo for the Blu-ray of Mary Poppins, and indeed Disney enterprises in general, are not entirely without substance: the 1964 film informs the 2013 one to a considerable extent, to the point where excerpts from it are shown during the climax. Your enjoyment of most of the 1960s material will depend somewhat on your fondness for Mary Poppins – though I have to say that I’m indifferent to it at best, and still found these scenes to be enjoyable and frequently very funny indeed.

(I should say that I did emerge from this film with a heightened respect for the majesty of the Sherman brothers’ songs from Mary Poppins, which are regularly deployed throughout. The soundtrack listing even appears to promise a scene where Colin Farrell comes on and performs Chim-Chim-Cheree, which I was rather looking forward to as (potentially) this year’s Pierce-Brosnan-versus-ABBA moment, but unfortunately it never quite materialises.)

The makers of this film claim the Disney corporation made no stipulations regarding the depiction of the man who’s essentially their patron deity, which I find slightly hard to believe, and it’s still the case that while Mrs Travers comes across as often brittle, demanding, chilly, and contrary, Walt Disney is presented as unfailingly wise, kindly, decent and insightful. (Whatever one makes of the characterisations, one instinctively doubts the historical accuracy of any major Hollywood production these days as a matter of course.)

Even the most sceptical viewer would, I think, concede that this is a very polished and charming production, with considerable credit due to the writers and cast. Watching Thompson and Hanks spar is a real pleasure – Thompson gets perhaps the slightly better part, but you can see Hanks is revelling in the opportunity to play such an iconic figure when it comes to both Americana and global pop culture generally. Paul Giamatti plays Mrs Travers’ chauffeur, and Brad Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak play Don DaGradi and the Sherman brothers: all of them get the tone of their performances pretty much exactly right. Colin Farrell gets the big role in the Australian sequences, but I was rather impressed by Ruth Wilson as Mrs Travers’ mother.

I can’t help thinking that, based on what we’re shown here, the real Mrs Travers would have been mortified to the point of horror by the thought of her life story being repurposed as the basis for a heart-warming comedy drama, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily grounds for dismissing Saving Mr. Banks. I liked it a lot, and indeed I think it’s a film you would have to make a real effort to actively dislike – but, much as the central story of how the parent-child relationship can influence a person throughout their life is sensitively and impressively handled, one can’t shake the impression that this particular version of it is only being told due to its proximity to a much-loved, much-garlanded, out-now-on-various-formats movie classic. This is a good film, but the charge that on some level it’s basically just the Disney company patting itself on the back in public for two hours is going to be a hard one to dodge.

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