Politics & Policy

The Dark Days of Spielberg

Reviews of Bridge of Spies, Truth, and Suffragette

The dark, creepy murk of Steven Spielberg’s 2011 Lincoln also seeps into his new film, Bridge of Spies, an account of the 1957 exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union of captured espionage agents, the Russian Colonel Rudolph Abel and the American pilot Gary Francis Powers. This gloom can be attributed to Spielberg’s suggestion, in both films, of American political anxiety. After the ebullient history of Amistad, he has gone to the shadowy partisan chicanery behind Lincoln’s 14th Amendment to the Constitution and now to this consideration of the United States’ lack of innocence in global matters. Scenes of Abel’s and Powers’s secretive missions, and eventual imprisonment, juxtapose how our government and military matched Russia’s unprincipled subterfuge.

In Lincoln the weird darkness passed for cynical realism, but in Bridge of Spies it conveys disillusionment. When attorney James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) defends Abel before the Supreme Court, the imagery is overcast, somber; when Powers is detained by a Russian court, sunlight shines through the casements. Seem anti-American? In visual terms, Bridge of Spies is an ACLU movie. Through Donovan’s difficult maneuvers (against public disapproval and family discouragement), Spielberg pursues the sanctity of civil-liberties issues. Donovan, an insurance lawyer who served at the Nuremberg trials, must fight Cold War paranoia — presented as an eternal threat to America democracy.

Good guy Donovan (his stern face features Hanks’s twinkling eyes) represents a common man nobly acting against judicial and CIA expediencies; he defends the principles within the Constitution, referred to as “the Rule Book.” Robert De Niro’s overlooked The Good Shepherd (2007) was a more complex history of the social ideas at stake in CIA operations, but Bridge of Spies shows simplistic sentimentality when Donovan exclaims, “American justice is on trial! We’re in a battle for civilization!” Those are Tony Kushnerisms, hangovers from his over-rhetorical Lincoln script, which encouraged an unfortunate sanctimony in Spielberg’s newly politicized vision. After Kushner, the lights have dimmed in Spielberg’s worldview, making Bridge of Spies a glum experience.

Bridge of Spies gives reproach to America’s former sense of exceptionalism.

This script, co-written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, is surprisingly free of the Coen brothers’ usual sarcasm, but Spielberg’s emphasis on heavily shaded imagery is but another form of derision. He wasn’t a noir director until he entered this current phase of visual mourning. Bridge of Spies gives reproach to America’s former sense of exceptionalism. By showing the difficulty Donovan faced in recognizing the humanity shared with a Soviet spy, and then insisting on diplomacy over conflict (saving Powers’s life as well as that of an American student trapped in partitioned Berlin), Spielberg continues the contemporary allegory that made Lincoln so unappealing. (Some have praised that film and this new one for Spielberg’s consistency with Washington’s current political powers and their machinations.)

The opening sequence, in a New York City subway, uses a profusion of fedoras and cavanagh hats in a pantomime of mistaken identity that teases the cliché of post–World War II conformity (movie brat Spielberg turns Bresson’s Pickpocket into a game of hide-and-seek). Despite this culturally specific period gag, two contemporary pet phrases get repeated throughout Bridge of Spies: “Show these men who we are” derives from President Obama’s catch-all admonishment “That’s not who we are.” And there’s Donovan’s characteristic actuarial insistence when he negotiates with the Germans and Russians to release two Americans: “That kid matters. Every person matters.” Bridge of Spies is not one of Spielberg’s race movies, yet these expressions purposely echo/exploit contemporary racial politics, more ACLU cant. The problem with this is Spielberg’s aiming toward approval through partisanship — something I would never have accused him of in years past. It has dulled his artistry.

Spielberg has lost the native all-American exuberance that made the atomic-bomb/refrigerator exploit in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull so wondrous. Here, he mocks “duck-and-cover” Cold War training films, the public-school Pledge of Allegiance, and even Donovan’s “Big American breakfast” as part of obsolete cultural foolishness that deserves noir cynicism. This is pop art at its most disingenuous.

Everything in Bridge of Spies happens in the shadow of the Rosenbergs, as if Spielberg — tied to leftist self-pity — cannot forgive American political anxiety even while giving into it. Donovan’s singular intransigence contradicts Spielberg’s artistry. Hanks and Mark Rylance (who plays Abel) are equally, amusingly understated, but the Powers character, agent of the American military, gets short shrift. Yet this stick-figure All-American hunk (Austin Stowell) occasions one of the film’s most impressive shots: Through his open parachute, Powers watches his jet plane explode — the only real energy in a film that, like Lincoln, moves rather mournfully. The other good image is a slow panorama of Donovan’s son putting his finger through a bullet hole in a window while his father contends with community threats, the feds, and a jingoistic cop.

Swayed by today’s pop politics, Spielberg blurs the difference between humanist filmmaking and humanitarian grandstanding.

Spielberg seeks to correct such modern democratic mayhem rather than fully display American ambivalence. (“Don’t go bleeding heart over an Ivy League kid who decided to study Soviet economics,” warns a bad-guy operative.) Unable to find a common dynamic between the era’s political disagreements, Spielberg makes Donovan’s exhausting struggle too sanctimonious. He means this to be a tale of patriarchal integrity, like that of Joel McCrea in Stars in My Crown and of Gregory Peck in the lesser, more famous To Kill a Mockingbird. It is Donovan himself, not just the daunting Glienicker Brücke, who is the bridge between spies, balancing all options, healing international suspicions.

Still, Donovan’s Americanness feels like a rhetorical trope, not exactly reactionary but moralistic. His fatigue exposes Spielberg’s own — although a briefly glimpsed moment of children’s backyard play provides a charming, disturbing, genuine metaphor for freedom. Swayed by today’s pop politics, Spielberg blurs the difference between humanist filmmaking and humanitarian grandstanding.

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Cate Blanchett in “Truth”

Another ode to investigative journalism that follows the overrated All the President’s Men (1976) in being paid undeserved reverence, Truth could be called All the President’s Mice, for its rat-pack mentality concerning the valor of the New York media elite, who presume to own truth and influence the electorate.

Few movies reveal this political bias as stupidly as this presumptuously titled biopic, which glorifies former CBS news producer Mary Mapes’s obstinacy. Mapes used her position on the show 60 Minutes (“We’re the gold standard!”) to report the Abu Ghraib abuses, then sought to besmirch President Bush with allegations about his National Guard history. “He doesn’t deserve reelection” begins the 2004 storyline, and divulging this animosity is the film’s last honest moment. The rest is devoted to disguising personal animus as “professionalism.” Writer-director James Vanderbilt, adapting Mapes’s memoir, neglects to examine the cult of New York leftism — similar to the cult of Los Angeles leftism, and thus responsible for a host of films that pretend to muckraking. Their true essence is in the scene of Mapes and CBS anchorman Dan Rather celebrating themselves with cocktails. (Rather resigned in the aftermath of Mapes’s smear journalism, then unsuccessfully sued CBS.)

#related#Truth’s TV-style hectoring is bearable only because of its laughable, tone-deaf casting. Robert Redford as Dan Rather cruises through as if posing for a dollar bill, a crusty reminder of All the President’s Men, with Rather’s Texas accent the only effort at acting. Disastrously, hilariously, Cate Blanchett plays Mapes like Elizabeth I — a feminist standard-bearer, forever fighting the trauma of an abusive father. (“They do not get to smack us just for asking the fucking question!”) Her melodramatic phoniness (“I can’t go on!” she howls while lying prostrate) doesn’t authenticate American careerism. She taunts a panel of journalists: “Do you mean ‘Am I now or have I ever been a liberal?’” invoking George Clooney’s noxious ode to free speech in Good Night and Good Luck. Fact is, Mapes did no actual reporting and failed to prove her claim against Bush. “Arrogance” would be a better title for this trash.

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“Suffragette”

Not a good week for movie feminism. Suffragette retells the 1912 British movement for women’s voting rights by sentimentalizing victimhood and valorizing terrorist activism (planting bombs and throwing rocks hidden in baby carriages). Carey “Crybaby” Mulligan plays a newly politicized laundress, the lead character in this unscrupulous effort at popularizing dissent. As the Communist-inspired Emmeline Pankhurst, Meryl Streep pipes: “Be militant, each of you in your own way. I’d rather be a rebel than a slave!” using a Brit accent fake enough to be Blanchett. Director Sarah Gavron downplays the Emily Davison character, whose Derby Day protest and death catalyzed the movement. Gavron’s sentimental ineptitude typifies recent civil-rights movie propaganda, but with Suffragette 2015 movies may have hit bottom.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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