Bridge of Spies (2015)

Spielberg by this point is pretty adept at crafting a solid historical drama with period details and excellent ensemble acting. In this case, his current ‘everyman’ Tom Hanks is in the lead role as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer called on to defend an accused Russian spy in late-1950s New York. Donovan does what he can with an open-and-shut case, ensuring that the accused, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is not executed, an insurance policy which pays off years later (somewhat telescoped by this film) when surveillance pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union and the two men are exchanged by their governments, with Donovan acting as the intermediary. There are, then, essentially two acts, with Hanks stepping up to the courtroom drama with aplomb, the screenplay hitting hard on ‘what it means to be American’ (i.e. follow the guiding light of the Constitution), although at the very least not in a way as facilely patriotic as in some other US films. The real revelation is theatre actor Mark Rylance, whose acting style notably contrasts with Hanks’ familiar good-natured shtick (although the character of Donovan has a hard edge in negotiations — if not in action — that Hanks does bring out well). The second act of the film is set in snowy Berlin, and is almost comedic in its portrayal of the competing bureaucracies of the Soviet Union, East Germany (rather sore at not being a recognised state) and the US, with a foolish university student pulled into the mix. There’s nothing shabby about the production as a whole and it’s put together with all of Spielberg’s well-honed craft, aided by the Coen brothers sharpening up the screenplay. It will probably win awards, and why not, eh?

Bridge of Spies film posterCREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writers Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski; Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Saturday 5 December 2015.

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That Thing You Do! (1996)

Tom Hanks has been one of Hollywood’s most likeable and charismatic stars for years, and it turns out this touch transfers well to his first directorial effort (though he’s only directed one other film in the intervening 20 years). It helps that this 1960s period story, about a bunch of young American lads chasing the success of the British Invasion bands (specifically the Beatles), is fairly light-hearted and coasts through on the screen appeal of its young leads, including an early role for Steve Zahn. It follows a familiar arc of early beginnings, growing commercial success, band friction and dissolution, but it does so in a very easygoing way that never outstays its welcome (there’s a longer director’s cut, though I’ve not seen that). Cheerfully coloured era-specific set and fashion design enlivens the whole thing, making for a satisfying weekend matinee movie experience.

That Thing You Do! film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tom Hanks; Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Tom Everett Scott, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Liv Tyler, Tom Hanks; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 June 2015 (and years earlier as well).

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

As Cast Away (2000) proved, Tom Hanks hasn’t exactly been averse to feature-length product placement films, and while it would probably be perverse to say this is all just one big advert for the magical power of Walt Disney, it certainly doesn’t shy away from hymning the transportive power of childhood entertainment (after all, it’s made by Disney Studios). It deals with the making of their film of Mary Poppins (1964), specifically with the negotiations that took place to get the original book’s author, Mrs P. L. (Pamela, but never call her that) Travers, onboard. It’s through the curmudgeonly Travers, played by an on-form Emma Thompson, who makes the whole enterprise at least somewhat palatable, taking Disney’s self-aggrandising lustre off with her bitter and cynical asides about just about everything she encounters. In that sense, you could look at it as a classic fish-out-of-water scenario, and that’s probably the best way to enjoy the film.

Part of the success of the film is that its subject, Mrs Travers, is clearly such an interesting historical character, but one whom very few people know about. From the very first frames of the film, a parallel structure is set up between the contemporary world of the early-1960s and Travers’ childhood growing up in Australia just after the turn of the century, as the son of an alcoholic bank manager father (played by Colin Farrell). In some ways, you need the saccharine pomp of Disney in his Los Angeles headquarters to temper the bitter edge of Travers and her life, though the parallel structure does mean that Travers herself is seen coming to some kind of understanding of Disney’s project through reflection on her childhood (in reality, she hated the finished film). This creates an explicit link between childhood memories and the fantasism of the children’s entertainment industry (as epitomised by Disney) — between Travers’ real father and that of the father in Mary Poppins (after whom this film is titled) — which can all seem a bit obvious and over-sentimentalised at times in the film.

That said, Thompson’s performance is a marvel, given the character as written hardly has very much more to say for most of the film than “No, no, no. No no no no NO! This simply won’t do” and the like — she is particularly set against the animation. The bulk of the film’s Los Angeles sections are taken up with her locked in conflict with the film’s writer Don (Bradley Whitford) and the two composer brothers, Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, respectively), into which fray Disney himself (an avuncular Hanks) tries to bring peace, to limited success. These sections are however far more enjoyable than those set in colonial Australia, though Farrell does perfectly well as the loving but dissipated father. The younger Travers has little more to do than look golden-haired and angelic, betraying little hint of her later grumpiness.

In the end, Saving Mr. Banks is a film about the interplay between childhood innocence and adult disappointments as made by Disney, so that should be a guide for viewers as to the tone the finished film takes. That said, Thompson and Hanks do their best to efface any of the more overt sentimentalising in their performances at least, making this a very watchable and easily digestible piece of filmmaking history.

Saving Mr. Banks film posterCREDITS
Director John Lee Hancock; Writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Monday 23 December 2013.

Captain Phillips (2013)

When I saw the trailer for this new movie many months ago, I have to say I was afraid it would be a triumphal story of an entitled white man single-handedly defeating the racial Other, though I perhaps didn’t take into account director Paul Greengrass’s involvement. As such, the end result is a movie that doesn’t follow the usual playbooks for this kind of story, and which engages with all its characters in a fair way. Greengrass after all has previous form with films based on real life events that take a sort of documentary aesthetic to their recreations: he gained early acclaim with made-for-TV docudramas before finding a bigger screen with Northern Ireland-set Bloody Sunday (2002) and most notably the gripping and claustrophobic United 93 (2006) about the 9/11 flight (not to mention that his forays into fiction in two Jason Bourne films have managed to retain this patina of realism). Therefore, it should have been no surprise that Captain Phillips is a tense and exciting thriller.

The film starts out on land with two matched prologues. One is set in Vermont where our eponymous Captain, Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), is getting a lift with his wife to the airport. He is on his way to Oman to head up the crew of the Maersk Alabama container ship which is travelling to Kenya. Phillips and his wife have a brief discussion of the ways in which life is getting tougher and how their (now grown) children will have to work harder to succeed than they did. And then we cross to a village by the coast in Somalia, all but undercutting that low level of American middle-class anxiety to show us lives that are already lived in extremes of poverty and deprivation. The local warlord arrives in his fleet of cars to order the local tribal elder to get together a band of hijackers, as they want another payday. Two skiffs are swiftly organised on the beach, one headed up by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who chooses three men from those crowding around him, before they head out into the oceans.

This is the set-up and from this point onwards, no more than ten minutes or so in, the film is entirely set out on the high seas, in the cramped confines of the container ship heading down past the Somali coast, and then the even more claustrophic life raft taking the pirates and Phillips towards the film’s denouement. Given the story’s genesis in a book written by Phillips about his experiences, it cannot be any surprise that he makes it to the end of the story, but the film is very careful to focus more attention on the pirates, whose story is rather less well-known. These four are not simply portrayed as dangerous enemies to our heroic captain, as one might expect, but as human beings acting as much out of duty as Phillips does, each (including the Captain) displaying their own blend of vulnerability and unexpected daring.

Indeed, aided by the fine acting of Abdi, Hanks and the minor players, all the characters are shown to be operating under a sense of compulsion that comes from places unseen. Where Phillips feels an obligation to his company that leads him to plot a foolhardy course through an area known to be dangerous, so Muse has a task that he knows he cannot return from empty-handed. Elsewhere, there’s the tribal elder in Muse’s village, the captain of the US warship sent to aid the Alabama and the commander of a Navy SEALs team of trained commandoes tasked to bring the hostage crisis to an end, all of whom are seen just following orders. On all sides, this maritime world is one of very carefully-delineated roles that allow for little exercise of free will, and is a nice change from the kinds of single-handed heroics that dominate action films in similar settings (Tom Hanks here is no Steven Seagal in Under Siege, nor even an Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October).

Given its limited range of settings, the film manages to create a fair amount of tension (even though we know how things will end for the Captain at least), and much of this is down to the claustrophic locations and grainy cinematography that keeps the camera tightly focused in on faces. The film also engenders plenty of empathy for its Somali characters, as much victims as anyone else in the story. Even at the end, there’s no triumph or release, no pat return to normality, and some of Hanks’s best acting — not to mention the most emotionally wrought scenes, functioning as a kind of catharsis for the audience — is reserved for these brief moments when the plot has all been wrapped up. From start to finish, Captain Phillips (the film if not the character) is totally in control, and ranks as probably one of Greengrass’s finest works so far.

CREDITS
Director Paul Greengrass; Writer Billy Ray (based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty); Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi برخد عبدي; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Tuesday 5 November 2013.