“THE POST” (2017) Review

the-post

“THE POST” (2017) Review

When one thinks of Katharine GrahamBen Bradlee and The Washington Post; the Watergate scandal comes to mind. So, when I heard that filmmaker Steven Spielberg planned to do a movie about the famous newspaper’s connection to the “Pentagon Papers” . . . I was very surprised. 

As many know, the Pentagon Papers had originated as a U.S. Department of Defense sponsored report that depicted the history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Sometime between 1969 and 1971, former military/RAND Corporation strategic analyst Daniel Ellsberg and RAND colleague Anthony Russo secretly made several copies of classified documents about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam since 1945 and submitted them in 1971 to The New York Times correspondent, Neil Sheehan. The Times eventually published the first excerpts of the classified documents on June 13, 1971. For years, I have been aware of The New York Times‘s connection to the Pentagon Papers. I had no idea that The Washington Post had played a major role in its publication, as well.

There have been several productions and documentaries about the Pentagon Papers. However, most of those productions centered around Daniel Ellsberg or The New York Times‘s roles in the documents. “THE POST” marked the first time in which any production has depicted The Washington Post‘s role. Many people, including employees from The New York Times, have questioned Spielberg’s decision to make a movie about The Post‘s connection to the Pentagon Papers. Some have accused Spielberg of giving credit for the documents’ initial publication to the The Washington Post. And yet, the movie made it perfectly clear that The New York Times was the first newspaper to do so. It even went out of its way to convey Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee’s frustration at The Times‘ journalistic coup.

Following The New York Times‘s publication of the Pentagon Papers’ first excerpts, the Nixon Administration, at the urging of Secretary of State Henry Kissenger, opposed the publication. Later, President Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General John Mitchell to obtain a Federal court injunction, forcing The Times to cease publication after three articles. While The New York Times prepared a legal battle with the Attorney General’s office, Post assistant editor Ben Bagkikian tracks down Ellsberg as the source of the leak. Ellsberg provides Bagdikian with copies of the same material given to The Times, who turns them in to Bradlee. The movie’s real drama ensues when the newspaper’s owner, Katherine Graham, finds herself torn between Bradlee’s urging to publish the documents and the newspaper’s board of directors and attorneys, urging her not to.

I had at least two problems with “THE POST”. I am certain that others had more problems, but I could only think of two. I had a problem with Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography. I realize that the man is a legend in the Hollywood industry. And I have been more than impressed with some of his past work – many of it for Steven Spielberg’s movies. But I did not like his photography in “THE POST”. I disliked the film’s grainy and slightly transparent photography. I do not know the reasons behind Spielberg and Kamiński’s decision to shoot the movie in this style. I do know that I found it unappealing.

My second problem with the film centered around Spielberg’s directorial style. In other words, his penchant for sentimentality nearly made the film’s last ten minutes slightly hard for me to swallow. I refer to the scene in which one of the reporters read aloud the Supreme Court’s decision to allow both The Washington Post and The New York Times, along with any other newspaper, to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers. It simply was not a matter of actress Carrie Coon reading the Court’s decision out loud. Spielberg emphasized the profoundness of the moment with John Williams’ maudlin score wailing in the background. A rather teeth clenching moment for me.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the movie very much. Superficially, “THE POST” did not seem that original to me. When one has seen the likes of “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” and “SPOTLIGHT”, what is so different between them and “THE POST”. But there was a difference. For the movie’s real heart focused upon owner Katherine Graham and her conflict over whether or not to allow the next excerpts of the Pentagon Papers to be published. And what made this even more interesting is the woman’s character.

If one had read Graham’s memoir, “Personal History”, one would learn that for years, she had suffered from an inferiority complex since childhood, due to her strained relationship with her more assertive mother. In fact, her father, who was the newspaper’s original owner, had handed over the newspaper to her husband, Philip Graham, instead of her. And she saw nothing wrong with her father’s decision. Following her husband’s death, Graham found herself publisher of The Post. During the movie’s setting – June 1971 – not only did Graham found herself dealing with Ben Bradlee’s urgent demand that the newspaper publishes the Pentagon Papers, but also with the newspaper’s stock market launch. Even worse, Graham also found herself facing a board of directors who did not take her seriously as The Post‘s publisher.

So in the end, “THE POST” was more than about the Papers itself and the question of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. It seemed to be about how an unpopular war had an indirect impact upon a woman’s life through a political scandal. The movie also seemed to be about a struggle between the media’s belief in free press in order to inform the people and the government’s belief in its right to control what the people should know. In a way, the Vietnam War and Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers established The Washington Post‘s rise as an important national newspaper. And it opened the public’s eyes about the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam – something that had been hidden from the government for over two decades. The war and Ellsberg also kick started Katherine Graham’s elevation as a newspaper publisher willing to take a risk for an important news story and of her self-esteem. Spielberg’s movie could have simply been about The New York Times‘s scoop with its publication of the first excerpts of the Pentagon Papers and its battle with the Nixon Administration. But as I have earlier pointed out, his narrative has been seen in past productions.

Aside from my disappointment with Kamiński’s cinematography, there were other aspects of “THE POST” I admired. I certainly had no problems with Rick Carter’s production designs. One, he did an admirable job of re-creating Washington D.C. and New York City circa 1971. And I was especially impressed that both Carter and set decorator Rena DeAngelo’s recreation of The Washington Post‘s newsroom was as accurate as possible. I had learned that the newsroom depicted in the 1976 movie, “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” was slightly larger. Apparently, sometime between the newspaper’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, its newsroom had been renovated and enlarged. Good catch on Carter and DeAngelo’s part. Hollywood icon Ann Roth designed the costumes for the film and I must say that I was impressed. I was not impressed because I found her costumes dazzling or memorable. I was impressed because Roth, who had also served as costume designer for three of director Anthony Maghella’s films, perfectly captured the fashion styles of the conservative Washington political set of the early 1970s.

Both Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks earned acting nominations – for their portrayals of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee. Streep is the only one who earned an Academy Award nod. I am a little conflicted about it. On one hand, I cannot deny that the two leads gave very good performances. Streep did an excellent job in conveying Graham’s emotional growth into her role as her late husband’s successor as owner of The Washington Post. And Hanks was first-rate as the ambitious and tenacious Bradlee, who saw The Post‘s acquisition of more excerpts from the Pentagon Papers as a step into transforming the newspaper as a major national periodical. The movie also featured an interesting performance from Bob Odenkirk, who portrayed Ben Bagkikian, the assistant editor who had decided to set out and find Ellsberg after the Attorney General’s Office forced The New York Times to cease publication of the Papers. Another interesting performance came from Bruce Greenwood, whose portrayal of the besieged former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara really impressed me.

I was surprised to discover that “THE POST” won a Best Ensemble award from the Detroit Film Critics Society. But you know what? Perhaps I should not have been that surprised. With a cast that included Carrie Coon, David Cross and Philip Casnoff; I really enjoyed those scenes featuring Bradlee with his senior staff, whether they were discussing or examining the Pentagon Papers. The movie also featured solid performances from Bradley Whitford, Sarah Poulson, Matthew Rhys, Michael Stulhbarg, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemmons, Pat Healy, and Zach Woods.

I can honestly say that I would not regard “THE POST” as one of my top five favorite movies directed by Steven Spielberg. In fact, I am not sure if I would regard it as one of his best films. But the movie proved to be one of my favorites released in 2017, thanks to Spielberg’s direction, a first-rate screenplay written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and an excellent cast led by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. I have a feeling that it is one movie that I would never get tired of watching.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s

1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

“LINCOLN” (1974-76) Review

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“LINCOLN” (1974-76) Review

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, poet and historian Carl Sandburg wrote a six-volume biography on the life of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Years passed before David Wolper (“ROOTS”, “THE THORN BIRDS”, and the “NORTH AND SOUTH” TRILOGY) produced a six-part miniseries on Lincoln’s life and career, based upon Sandburg’s work.

“LINCOLN” is not what I would your usual biography with a straight narrative. With the exception of one episode that centered on Lincoln acting as a defense attorney in the 1830s and another that focused on the period between his first election and inauguration, the majority of the episodes centered on his administration during the U.S. Civil War. And not in any particular order. Below is a list for those who prefer to watch the entire miniseries in chronological order:

(1.03) “Prairie Lawyer” – Lincoln goes against future political adversary Stephen A. Douglas when he defends physician Dr. Henry B. Truett against murder charges in 1838.

(2.02) “Crossing Fox River” – This episode covers Lincoln’s life between winning his first presidential election in November 1860 and attending his first inauguration in March 1861.

(1.01) “Mrs. Lincoln’s Husband” – In the wake of the death of the Lincolns’ second son William “Willie”, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln‘s erratic behavior embarrasses and endangers her husband politically when a cabal of Republican senators question her loyalty to the Union.

(1.02) “Sad Figure, Laughing” – Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and his daughter Kate attempt to undermine President Lincoln’s bid for re-election during the 1864 presidential campaign, when they become aware of how Lincoln’s jokes and stories seem to erode their fellow Republicans’ confidence in him.

(2.01) “The Unwilling Warrior” – Lincoln finds himself forced to learn the art of war, as he searches for the right general to lead the Union Army to victory between 1861 and 1865.

(2.03) “The Last Days” – Following the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House, President Lincoln plans Reconstruction with his cabinet and discusses a post-presidential future with the First Lady.

“LINCOLN” managed to garner a great deal of critical acclaim back in the mid-1970s. Did it deserve it? Perhaps. I found myself somewhat impressed by the production. The miniseries, from a visual point-of-view, has managed to hold up rather well in the past forty years. Aside from the exterior shots, the photography struck me as somewhat sharp and colorful, thanks to cinematographer Howard Schwartz . More importantly, director George Schaefer managed to avoid that “filmed play” aspect that had tainted many British television productions and a few American productions. Somewhat. There were a few scenes that seemed to stretch a tad too long in “LINCOLN”, but not fortunately long enough to stretch my patience too thin.

A part of me wishes that “LINCOLN” had included more scenes of Lincoln’s life before the Civil War. The 1974-76 miniseries must be the first of three productions titled “LINCOLN” – the other two being the 1988 miniseries and the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie – that seemed to be about Lincoln’s years in the White House. Another aspect of this miniseries that I found a bit odd is that it did not feature any African-American characters, other than the occasional extra portraying a White House servant. I think. There is a chance that my memory might be playing tricks with me. I simply find it odd that a production about a U.S. president who had such a strong impact on the history of African-Americans . . . did not feature any black supporting characters. No Elizabeth Keckley, the Washington D.C. seamstress who became Mrs. Lincoln’s personal modiste and close companion, or Frederick Douglass, who had met Lincoln in 1863. Considering Lincoln’s overly cautious approach on the subjects of abolition and civil rights, there is a chance that producer David Wolper feared that Lincoln’s reputation as an emancipator would have slightly eroded. It was okay to discuss slavery, which the production did . . . but not with any real depth.

The miniseries certainly did not hesitate to display Lincoln’s ruthlessness and talent for political manipulation. Even when those traits were occasionally clouded by compassion, humor and verbosity, it was on display. This was especially apparent in two episodes – namely “Sad Figure, Laughing”, in which Lincoln had to deal with the political machinations of Salmon Chase for the Republican nomination for President in 1864; and in “The Unwilling Warrior”, in which he dealt with one general after another in his search for the one military leader who could deal with the Army of Northern Virginia and Robert E. Lee.

The best aspect of “LINCOLN” were the performances. Well . . . some of the performances. I hate to say this, but some of the minor performances struck me as a bit theatrical or amateurish. There were some performances that struck me as solid – including Norman Burton as General Ulysses S. Grant, Robert Foxworth as John T. Stuart, Lloyd Nolan asSecretary of State William H. Seward, Ed Flanders as General George B. McClellan, and Catherine Burns as Mary Owens. But there were those performances that I found impressive. This especially seemed to be the case for Roy Poole as Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Elizabeth Ashley as the latter’s older daughter Kate Chase Sprague, Beulah Bondi as Lincoln’s stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln, John Randolph as the first Secretary of War Simon Cameron and James Carroll Jordan as the Lincolns’ oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln.

But the two performances that outshone the others came from Hal Holbrook and Sada Thompson as the presidential couple, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. This is not really surprising. Of the three productions I have seen about Lincoln, the actors and actresses who have portrayed this couple have all given superb performances. This was the case for both Holbrook and Thompson. Holbrook seemed to have some special connection to the 16th president. The 1974-76 miniseries marked the first time he portrayed the role. He also portrayed Lincoln in the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” and he appeared in the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie as an old political crony of the President’s,Francis P. Blair. Holbrook’s portrayal of Lincoln could have easily strayed into the realm of folksy idealism. The actor did not completely reveal the more negative aspects of Lincoln’s character, but he did a superb job in conveying not only the President’s style of humor, but also his political savvy and a temper that can be fearsome. In an odd way, Sada Thompson had the easier job portraying First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Hollywood productions are more inclined to explore the more negative aspects of her personality than Lincoln’s. What I enjoyed about Thompson’s performance is that she still managed to make Mrs. Lincoln a likable person, despite the character flaws. It is not surprising that Holbrook won an Emmy for his performance and Thompson earned a nomination. Both of them deserved the accolades.

There are aspects of “LINCOLN” that I found questionable. Well . . . my main problem is that the production did not focus enough on the question of slavery, which I found rather odd, considering the subject matter. I also wish that the miniseries had included more scenes of Abraham Lincoln’s life before the Civil War. Now some television viewers might find the scattered narrative somewhat disconcerting. I simply figured out the chronological order of the episodes and watched them in that manner. But overall, “LINCOLN” is a first-rate miniseries about the 16th President that holds up rather well, thanks to George Schaefer’s direction and a skillful cast led by the talented Hal Holbrook and Sada Thompson.

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

Several years ago, I read an article in which Steven Spielberg had expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. It has been over a decade since the director had made this comment. And as far as I know, he has only directed two movies that had anything to do with spies – the 2005 movie “MUNICH”, which co-starred the current Bond actor, and his latest film, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”.

Like “MUNICH”, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is a spy tale with a strong historical background. Based upon Giles Whittell’s 2010 book, “Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War”, the movie centered around the 1960 U-2 Incident and the efforts of attorney James B. Donovan to negotiate the exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for the captured Soviet spyRudolf Abel – whom Donovan had unsuccessfully defended from charges of espionage against the United States. Although Whittell’s book focused upon a larger cast of characters involved in the U-2 incident and the famous spy exchange, the screenwriters – Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen – and Spielberg tightened their focus upon Donovan’s role in the incident.

It occurred to me that in the past fifteen years, I can only think of five Steven Spielberg-directed movies that I have truly liked. Five out of eleven movies. Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that is good or bad. Fortunately, one of those movies that I managed to embrace was this latest effort, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”. I enjoyed it very much. I would not rank it at the same level as “MUNICH” or “LINCOLN”. But I thought it was a pretty solid movie for a director of Spielberg’s caliber. The latter and the movie’s screenwriters made the intelligent choice to focus on one particular person involved in the entire incident – James B. Donovan. If they had attempted to cover every aspect of Whittell’s book, Spielberg would have been forced to release this production as a television miniseries.

Yet, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” still managed to cover a great deal of the events surrounding the shooting of Powers’ U-2 spy plane and the exchange that followed. This is due to the screenwriters’ decision to start the movie with the arrest of Rudolf Abel in 1957. More importantly, the narrative went into details over the arrest, the U.S. decision to put Abel on trial, their choice of Donovan as his attorney and the trial itself. In fact, the movie covered all of this before Powers was even shot down over the Soviet Union. The screenwriters and Spielberg also went out of their way to cover the circumstances of the arrest and incarceration of American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who was vising his East Berlin girlfriend, when he was arrested. And that is because the writers had the good sense to realize – like Whittell before them – that the incidents surrounding the arrests of both Abel and Pryor were just as important as Powers being shot down by the Soviets.

What I best liked about “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was its ambiguous portrayal of the nations involved in the entire matter – the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). No country was spared. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed bent upon not only projecting some image of a wounded nation to the world. Both engaged in sham trials for Abel and Powers that left a bad taste in my mouth. And the movie portrayed East Germany as some petulant child pouting over the fact that neither of the other two countries were taking it seriously. Which would account for that country’s vindictive treatment toward Pryor. And neither the U.S. or the Soviets seemed that concerned over Pryor’s fate – especially the U.S. Watching the movie finally made me realize how the Cold War now strikes me as irrelevant and a waste of time.

As much as I enjoyed “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, the movie seemed to lack a sense of urgency that struck me as odd for this kind of movie. And I have to blame Spielberg. His direction seemed a bit . . . well, a bit too relaxed for a topic about the Cold War at its most dangerous. Many might point out that “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is basically a historic drama in which anyone familiar with the U-2 incident would know how it ends. Yet Both “MUNICH” and “LINCOLN”, along with Ron Howard’s “APOLLO 13” and Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film, “THIRTEEN DAYS”, seemed to possess that particular sharp urgency, despite being historic dramas. But for “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, Spielberg’s direction seemed just a tad too relaxed – with the exception of a few scenes. One last problem I had with “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was the ending. Remember . . . this is Steven Spielberg, a director notorious for dumping a surprising layer of saccharine on an otherwise complex tale. This saccharine was on full display in the movie’s finale sequence that featured Donovan’s return to the United States . . . especially the scene in which he is riding an El train to his home in the Bronx and his family’s discovery of his activities in Eastern Europe. It was enough saccharine to make me heave an exasperated sigh.

Speaking of Donovan’s El Train ride back to his neighborhood, there was one aspect of it that I found impressive. I must admit how cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime collaborator of Spielberg’s since the early 1990s, allowed the camera to slowly sweep over Donovan’s Bronx neighborhood from an elevated position. I found the view rather rich and detailed. In fact, Kamiński provided a similar sweeping bird eye’s view of the Berlin Wall and the two “enclaves” that bordered it. Another aspect of the movie’s production values that impressed me were Adam Stockhausen’s production designs. I thought he did an outstanding job in re-creating both New York City and Berlin of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his work was ably assisted by Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich’s set decorations; along with the art direction team of Marco Bittner Rosser, Scott Dougan, Kim Jennings and Anja Müller.

The performances featured in “BRIDGE OF SPIES” struck me as pretty solid. I thought Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Gaston, Will Rogers and Austin Stowell did great work. But for my money, the best performances came from lead Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Dakin Matthews and Sebastian Koch. Dakin Matthews has always been a favorite character actor of mine. I have always found his performances rather colorful. However, I would have to say that his portrayal of Federal Judge Byers, who seemed exasperated by Donovan’s attempt to give Abel a fair trial, struck me as a lot more subtle and effective than many of his past roles. Sebastian Koch gave a very interesting performance as East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who seemed intensely determined that his country play a major role in the spy swap and not be cast aside. Superficially, Tom Hanks’ role as James Donovan seemed like the typical “boy scout” role he had especially became known for back in the 1990s. And in some ways, it is. But I really enjoyed how the actor conveyed Donovan’s increasing disbelief over his country’s questionable handling of Abel’s trial and his sense that he is a fish-out-of-water in a divided Berlin. However, I feel that the best performance came from Mark Rylance, who gave a deliciously subtle, yet entertaining portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. What I liked about Rylance’s performance is that he did not portray Abel as some kind of stock KGB agent, but a subtle and intelligent man, who seemed clearly aware of the more unpleasant side of both American and Soviet justice. Rylance’s performance paid off with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

I might as well be frank. I do not think I would ever regard “BRIDGE OF SPIES” as one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. I thought the movie lacked a sense of urgency and sharpness that nearly robbed the film of any suspension . . . despite it being a historical drama. But, I still believe it was a first-rate film. I also thought that Spielberg and the movie’s screenwriters did a great job in conveying as many details as possible regarding the U-2 incident and what led to it. The movie also featured a first-rate cast led by the always incomparable Tom Hanks. Overall, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” proved that Spielberg has yet to lose his touch.

Favorite Films Set in the 1830s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1830s:

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1830s

1. “The Adventures of Huck Finn” (1993) – Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance starred in this excellent Disney adaptaion of Mark Twain’s 1885 novel about a young Missouri boy who joines a runaway slave on a journey along the Mississippi River toward the free states in antebellum America. Stephen Sommers directed.

1- The Count of Monte Cristo 2002

2. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002) – James Caviezel starred as the vengeful Edmond Dantès in Disney’s 2002 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas, père’s 1844 novel. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, the movie co-starred Guy Pearce and Dagmara Dominczyk.

2 - Pride and Prejudice 1940

3. “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) – Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. Robert Z. Leonard directed.

3 - The Count of Monte Cristo 1975

4. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1975) – Richard Chamberlain gave an intense performance in the 1975 television adaptation of Dumas’ novel. Tony Curtis and Kate Nelligan co-starred.

4 - Impromptu

5. “Impromptu” (1991) – Judy Davis and Hugh Grant starred in this comedic tale about author George Sand’s pursuit of composer Frédéric Chopin in 1830s France. James Lapine directed.

5 - Amistad

6. “Armistad” (1997) – Steven Spielberg directed this account of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad and the trials of the Mendes tribesmen/mutineers, led by Sengbe Pieh. The movie starred Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConnaughey, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins.

6 - Wide Sargasso Sea 2006

7. “Wide Sargasso Sea” (2006) – Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall starred in this 2006 television adaptation of Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel, which is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. It focused upon the early marriage of Antoinette Cosway (Bertha Mason) and Edward Rochester.

7 - My Cousin Rachel

8. “My Cousin Rachel” (1952) – Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton starred in this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel about a young Englishman’s obsession with his late cousin’s widow. Henry Koster directed.

8 - The Alamo 2004

9. “The Alamo” (2004) – John Lee Hancock directed this account of the Battle of the Alamo, the only production about the Texas Revolution that I actually managed to enjoy. The movie starred Billy Bob Thornton, Patrick Wilson and Jason Patric.

9 - The Big Sky

10. “The Big Sky” (1952) – Howard Hawks directed this adaptation of A.B. Guthrie’s 1947 novel about a fur trader’s expedition up the Missouri River. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin starred.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” (1989) Review

indiana-jones-and-the-last-crusade

“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” (1989) Review

After a mixed reaction to the darker tones of 1984’s “INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM”, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decided to compensate by ending what was then planned their Indiana Jones trilogy with a movie lighter in tone. The result of this decision is the 1989 movie, “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”.

The movie began with a prologue set in 1912 with a 13 year-old Indiana Jones riding with his Boy Scout troop in Utah. He stumbles across some robbers in a cave finding an ornamental cross that once belonged to Spanish explorer Coronado. Indy manages to steal the cross from the robbers and make it back to town to report the crime. His father, Henry Jones Sr. is oblivious to what his happening, due to his obsessive research on the Holy Grail. And Indy is forced to give up the cross to a mysterious man for whom the robbers worked for. Twenty-six years later, Indy finally gets his hands on the cross from the mysterious man, off the coast of Portugal.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” proved to be the only film in the franchise in which its prologue had little to do with the movie’s main narrative, aside from a brief peek into Henry Sr.’s obsession with the Holy Grail. Still in 1938, Indiana is contacted by an American businessman named Walter Donovan, who also happens to be a collector of antiquities. He informs Indy that Henry Sr. had vanished in Venice, Italy while searching for the Holy Grail on his behalf. Indy also receives a package in the mail that contains his father’s “Grail Diary” – a notebook featuring the latter’s research on the artifact. Realizing that Henry Sr. is in trouble, Indy and his mentor, Marcus Brody, travel to Venice and with the assistance of Dr. Elsa Schneider, Henry’s Austrian-born assistance, search for the missing archaeologist. During their adventures, the trio discover that Henry’s disappearance is either tied to a Christian secret society called the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword or the Nazis.

From the time I first saw “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”, I enjoyed it very much. Actually, I can say the same for just about every INDIANA JONES movie I have seen, save one. It really is a fun movie and I suspect this is a result of Lucas and Spielberg’s decision to make its tone lighter than either “TEMPLE OF DOOM” and 1981’s “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”. Just like in the previous movies, “THE LAST CRUSADE” saw Indiana Jones on a globe-trekking adventure to acquire a famous artifact on behalf of someone. In this case, he seemed to be working on behalf of both Walter Donovan and especially his father, Henry Jones Sr. But there was one aspect of this movie that made this movie particularly enjoyable was the casting. Lucas and Spielberg, along with screenwriters Jeffrey Boam and Tom Stoppard (uncredited), decided to make this movie a family affair by including Indy’s dad into the story. They also broadened the role of Indy’s mentor (and Henry Sr.’s college chum), Marcus Brody, who was featured in probably the movie’s funniest scene. And this is the only INDIANA JONES film and the second one for Lucas that featured a villainous leading lady. In fact, I suspect that Lucas was inspired by the Princess Sorsha character in 1988’s “WILLOW”, who started out as a villain and ended up as a sympathetic character. With Dr. Elsa Schneider, Lucas and Spielberg had a leading lady who started out as a heroine, slipped into villainess mode and ended up as a very ambiguous anti-heroine. I am not claiming that Elsa was the best of the movie franchise’s leading ladies, but she was certainly interesting.

The movie also featured some first-rate action sequences. My favorite included Indiana and Elsa’s conflict with the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword in Venice, Indy and Henry Sr.’s hasty departure from a Zeppelin that was returning to Germany and especially their escape from the German Army controlled Brunwald Castle on the Austrian-German border. The extended action sequence featuring Indiana’s clash with Colonel Ernst Vogel aboard a tank in the fictional Hatay desert ended with one of the movie’s best scenes – namely the tank falling over a cliff along with Indy and Vogel. This particular sequence must have been so successful that I suspect producer-director Peter Jackson more or less used it in one important scene in 2003’s “LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING”. But the movie was not sustained by interesting characterizations and action sequences alone. The main narrative for “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” – the search for the Holy Grail and belief in its existence and power – not only set in motion a series of adventures for the main characters, but also served as a backdrop for Indiana’s complicated relationships with both Elsa Schneider and especially, Henry Sr. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie featured a brief conversation between Indy and Henry Sr. aboard the Zeppelin in which the former pointed out that the latter’s obsession with the Holy Grail and inability to communicate led to a twenty-two year estrangement between father and son.

But as much as I enjoyed “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”, it is probably my least favorite in the franchise. Aside from the leading lady’s characterization, the movie strikes me as the least original of the four movies. The other three movies offered something truly original to the franhcise – especially in regard to narratives. I cannot say the same about “THE LAST CRUSADE”. Despite its unusual addition of the Elsa Schneider and Henry Jones Sr. characters, it was more or less a rehash of “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, which included a search for a Judeo-Christian artifact, Nazis, a Middle Eastern setting, the return of both Marcus Brody and Sallah Mohammed Faisel el-Kahir (Sallah), and a non-German collaborator of the Nazis who seemed more interested in the artifact than ideology.

Also, I was not that impressed by the 1912 Utah prologue for the movie. I did not find it particularly interesting, even though I am thankful that it served as a forerunner to “THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES” television series from the early 1990s. And as much as I enjoyed the relationship between Indy and Elsa, there was one scene between them that I found unappealing. It concerned Indy’s efforts to retrieve his father’s “Grail Diary” from the Austrian art historian in Berlin. The retrieval led to an angst-filled quarrel that struck me as rather false. I got the impression that Lucas and Spielberg were trying to capitalize on the emotional relationship between the James Bond and Kara Milovy characters in the 1987 Bond movie “THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS”. The problems were that I never got the feeling that Indy and Elsa were that emotionally involved for such angsty fight, and Harrison Ford and Alison Doody never really sold it for me . . . at least in that particular scene. Like the other three movies in the franchise, “THE LAST CRUSADE” suffered from some heavy-handed action sequences. This was especially apparent in the Hatay desert sequence featuring the Nazi tank. And could someone please explain how that Zeppelin traveled from Berlin to Southeastern Europe so fast? It was in the latter region where Indy and Henry Sr. encountered the German fighter planes sent to kill them. Also, “THE LAST CRUSADE” suffered from a fault that also marred both “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” and 2008’s “INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS”. In the film’s final confrontation scenes, Indy played no role in the main villain’s downfall. Like in the 1981 and 2008 films, he mainly stood around with this thumb up his ass while someone else . . . or a supernatural entity dealt with the main villain. And like in the other two movies, I found this anti-climatic and rather disappointing.

But I was certainly not disappointed with the cast. They proved to be first-rate . . . not surprisingly. Harrison Ford returned as the intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones and was superb and more relaxed in the role. Okay, I did criticize his acting in that Berlin scene with Alison Doody, but it was only one blot in an otherwise excellent performance. Dr. Henry Jones Sr. has to be my favorite Sean Connery role of all time. I adored him as Indy’s priggish and high-minded father who finds working in the field a new experience. And he also got to speak one of my favorite lines in the entire film, while repelling a German fighter plane in Eastern Europe. In fact, it is my favorite Connery quote of all time. Alison Doody was at least 21 or 22 years old when “THE LAST CRUSADE” went into production. She only had at least 2 to 3 years of acting experience. And yet, I was more than impressed by her portrayal of the amoral Austrian art historian Dr. Elsa Schneider. Doody had once complained that dealing with the Austrian accent was difficult for her. I would think dealing with Elsa’s complex nature would be more difficult. And I believe that despite her limited experience at the time, she did a pretty damn good job in portraying the very ambiguous Elsa – aside from that Berlin scene with Ford.

Julian Glover gave a smooth performance as Walter Donovan, the American businessman for whom the Jones family sought out the Holy Grail. His Donovan also proved to be just as complex, thanks to his skillful performance. Both John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliot reprised their roles as Sallah and Dr. Marcus Brody. And both were not only entertaining, but also gave first-rate performances. I especially enjoyed Elliot’s display of humor in a scene featuring Marcus’ arrival in Turkey. Michael Byrne’s portrayal of S.S. Colonel Ernst Vogel struck me as both subtle and intimidating. Back in 1980, Kevork Malikyan first tried out for the role of Sallah for “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, but the role went to Rhys-Davies. But Spielberg remembered him and hired the actor to portray Kazim, a member of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, whom Indy and Elsa encountered in Venice. Malikyan’s skllful portrayal of Kazim proved to be a complex mixture of intensity, religious fevor and a deep-seated calm. And River Phoenix did a marvelous job in portraying the 13 year-old Indiana. He proved to be quite adept in capturing Ford’s mannerisms and speech pattern, while maintaining the persona of a boy in his early teens.

As I had stated earlier, I found “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” to be the least original of the four movies in the franchise. Because of this, it is also my least favorite. But despite being my least favorite “INDIANA JONES” film, it is still very entertaining and I never get tired of watching it, thanks to a solid story penned by Jeffrey Boam and Tom Stoppard, first-rate direction by Steven Spielberg and an outstanding cast led by Harrison Ford and Sean Connery.