Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Hailing Caesar on the Bridge of Spies

When was the last time you watched a double-feature? It used to be that when you bought your ticket at a neighborhood movie house, you’d get two movies, and maybe a newsreel and a cartoon for good measure. Nowadays, of course, you pay for a single movie, and are hustled out when it’s over. (No sticking around to see something you might have missed because you came in late.)

Super Bowl weekend is a time for out-of-the ordinary behavior. Some people stay home and gorge on bean dip. Others, like my spouse and me, live dangerously at the multiplex. We went to see Bridge of Spies, a worthy Cold War thriller that poses interesting questions about the way we live now. When the lights came on, we realized that we had plenty of time (if we were willing to pay a separate admission fee) to catch the Coen brothers’ latest, an all-star goof called Hail, Caesar!.

Ironically enough, the classy Bridge of Spies can also be considered part of the Coens’ recent output. They were part of the writing team that’s been honored with one of the film’s six Oscar nominations. It was Matt Charman who zeroed in on the story of attorney James Donovan, the private citizen central to the negotiations that traded Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. I’ve heard nothing confirming exactly what additions were made by the Coens, but I suspect that they’re responsible for the screenplay’s verbal wit, as well as for some character details (like Donovan’s nasty cold and Abel’s whimsical stoicism) that make this story crackle to life. Tom Hanks is, of course, his usual Heroic Everyman self, but the picture in many ways belongs to Oscar-nominated British actor Mark Rylance, as a spy who tells nothing, asks for nothing, but is surprisingly lovable nonetheless.

 Watching the film’s first half took me back to my childhood when we were all subjected to duck and cover drills, neighbors were building backyard bomb shelters, and the possibility of a nuclear attack by the USSR seemed all too plausible. By contrast, the later scenes—which take place in a divided Berlin—reminded me of my 2015 visit to modern-day Germany. As shown in the film, East Berlin in the early Sixties was a grey-toned place of squalor and rubble. Its citizens were walled off from the West, and machine-gun emplacements were everywhere. Today, by contrast, the reunited city gleams. In 1962, approaching Checkpoint Charlie (as Tom Hanks must do in Bridge of Spies) was serious business. Now, however, Checkpoint Charlie is a tourist destination, with a McDonalds close at hand.

 Then, of course, there’s Hail, Caesar!, a movie as blithe and silly as Bridge of Spies is solemn and thoughtful.  This shaggy-dog tale of a studio fixer (Josh Brolin) in 1950s Hollywood doesn’t go deep, but it presents a joyous array of movie tropes from the era just before TV and the Youth Movement took over Tinseltown. It’s a Coen brothers valentine to singing cowboys, drawing-room extravaganzas (with Rafe Fiennes as a stiff-upper-life British director trying desperately to teach high style), tap-dancing sailors (Channing Tatum makes like Gene Kelly), and Scarlett Johansson as a tough gal at the center of a Busby Berkeley-style water ballet. (The L.A. Times has a great piece on the Aqualillies, the swim troupe that’s featured in the film.) Then there’s a detour into Blacklist politics, with George Clooney at his dopiest (and dupiest) as the star of a Bible epic who gets kidnapped and brainwashed by a gaggle of Commie screenwriters. Hail, Coens! 

Checkpoint Charlie as tourist destination, Berlin, 2015

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