director: Steven Spielberg
writers: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda and Amy Ryan
genre: Drama | Spy
released: 16 October 2015 (U.S.A.), 22 October 2015 (Australia), 13 November 2015 (Germany & Greece)
This film was made to exist for the decade of the 1950's-60's that lived and breathed Cold War hysteria, but it is also a film that the cinema goer of today couldn't care less for, not even if Steven Spielberg is the one directing it. The reason why possibly is because they have forgotten some of the great films he had made in the past, but also because many of his films of late were lacking in three specific areas. In that they had weak scripts, with productions that were absent of enthusiasm and him possibly not having anything important to say anymore as an auteur.
An undercover Russian Spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the U.S. authorities and put to trial for espionage. The U.S. not wanting to seem that they are not giving him a fair shake, put James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to be his lawyer and provide some prestige to the proceedings.
After all is said and done, the Russians themselves have had the opportunity themselves to capture a U.S. operative and thicken the plot between the two nations. This will lead to the exchange of spies between the countries, which the U.S. will once again put Donovan at the helm for everything to go without a hitch.
More problematic then finding people interested to see this kind of film, is that it didn't convince people like myself who are interested in these types of film to see it in its first weeks of release. This wasn't only it's trailer's fault, but also from the bad word of mouth and the hype built around it. As more people were keen to talk about it as an Oscar bait film, rather than a genre film or a film that had any suspense or mystique to it.
This is unfortunate, but once you watch the film and even enjoy somewhat some of its elements. You will find it to be very light in almost all of its departments. From its supposed big dramatic moments of people being shot on the Berlin Wall, shown not only in the trailer, but then in the film without a closeup nor any blood or guts to feel the impact and significance of what is going on in Berlin during this time in history. Then there is the spy torture scenes that feel procedural and even the Oscar awarded performance by Mark Rylance while decent, was mellow and with no real memorable moment or scene stealer, except one line he repeats constantly throughout the film.
Still, no one was asking for the end all of Cold War films to be made, but it would have been nice to feel that the stakes were high even just for a bit. And I'm not referring to the film being about the two superpower nations being on the brink of nuclear war, but at least for the main characters lives to be at risk and for us to get deep into their fears and hopes for the situations they are facing. Because this is seldomly the case in the film, as the narrative focus is shuffled around too often from the Russian Spy, to Hanks, then to the downed U-2 pilot and U.S. captured student in East Berlin. Not leaving much time to get any real development on any one character.
Naturally, there is still a lot else happening but is never played to the extent required. As by the time we get to people actually calling out Hanks character for his lack of patriotism and his reputation being on the line, we move immediately to the next phase in the film. Which is the film changing gears from a courtroom flick to a spy film in East Germany. Missing out on having any arc for its main character or a mystery factor to exist in the film and a MacGuffin element of sorts. Such as double crosses, enemy mind games and behind the scenes negotiations between the Russians, Americans and eastern Germans where things could get dangerous. Because the film is very simplistic for its own good and makes itself exceptional at being unexceptional it its execution. From Able's capture, imprisonment and behavior, to it turning into a small court drama and then into a negotiation game for characters we don't know or care about and who are treated without a significant amount of accord. It just is this very traditionally produced film where nothing is out of line. With almost all of its scenes not having any violent altercations, romantic infidelities or character actions that are questionable. It's a linear telling of what happened, without any concern that maybe something more was needed.
Big names, great production values and honing back to the genre films of the 50's and 60's shouldn't be enough to get you Oscar recognition. On the other hand, it should warrant our attention that these kinds of films aren't being made anymore and that they could also be slightly different when they are. As back in the day the plot would also come to have the title character fall in love with a Russian double agent, someone from the main cast to perish and for the city of Berlin to be a living breathing experience in order to spice things up. Quite the contrary of what we got to see here.