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NYFF reviews: 'Bridge of Spies' and 'Where to Invade Next'

The latest from Steven Spielberg made its world debut at the New York Film Festival this weekend, while Michael Moore's newest film made an appearance.
Bridge of SpiesWhere to Invade Next

‘Bridge of Spies’
3 Globes

As a Spielbergian crowd-pleaser, the latest from Steven Spielberg doesn’t really work, in part because the story isn’t that Spielbergian. The storytelling is too muted, the events too heavy on complex bureaucratic wheeling-and-dealing, and it all builds to what is essentially an anticlimax (on a bridge, as it were). These, alas, are the facts of the real-life case, in which an American lawyer, James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), wound up, circa deep Cold War 1957, playing politician between enemy powers. His plan was to help swap a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) caught (in Brooklyn, no less) by the feds for a U.S. pilot (Austin Stowell) captured over enemy lines. Everything’s a beaut, from the usual moody and harshly lit Janusz Kaminski cinematography to the grimy depiction of divided Berlin, in which the chatty second half takes place. But those looking for history simplified into a Capraesque rabble rouser will have to contend with a knottier and lumpier piece where rewards are more modest.

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But there are rewards, and “Bridge of Spies” represents the side of Spielberg in which he does battle with his own natural, populist instincts. This is the progressive, some could say naively hopeful side of Spielberg, where he dares, as he did in “Munich,” to see moral equivalency in a case that was then, and possibly even now, seen as a powder keg. Donovan, like William Kunstler after him, was a lawyer who didn’t shy away from defending the thought-to-be indefensible, and the first half charts his unpopular decision to help out Rylance’s disarmingly aloof Rudolf Abel, a man seemingly all of America wants to see executed. Donovan’s reasoning is that Abel is technically not committing treason, as he’s merely doing his job for another nation; moreover, were he to be killed, that would mean other powers would be cool with doing the same to Americans with the same gig. As luck (if you will) would have it, Donovan’s actions come right as the Soviets nab one of America’s own.

Spielberg paints the first half in broad strokes, but the movie really comes alive when Donovan sneaks off to Berlin to negotiate with enemy nations to exchange prisoners. This is also where it’s most evident that two of the screenwriters, namely Joel and Ethan Coen, had a hand, to the point where Spielberg mostly becomes a director-for-hire. The Coens, long obsessed with the case, came in to do a rewrite on an already existing script (by Matt Charman), and they’re clearly all over the darkly funny bits where Donovan has to shlep back and forth between the divided city, struggling to find the right people to oil up, all while fending off a brutal winter and vandals who abscond with his Saks Fifth Avenue overcoat (and then give him directions). Hanks, whose turn in the Coens’ underrated remake of “The Ladykillers” is one of his goofiest highs, acquits himself hilariously, filing a clipped, grouchy performance that again proves he would have been a great asshole in 1990’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” had he been allowed to blemish his nice guy image. The film itself is jagged and fragmented, not really sticking together. But the bits themselves are sound, even fun.

‘Where to Invade Next’
3 Globes

Like many of his films, TV shows and public pronouncements, Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” is over-simplified and sometimes, maybe even always, flat-out wrong. But it’s also, in a sense, open about it. Moore has often tackled subjects to big for his loosey-goosey approach: capitalism, gun control, health care, even George W. Bush’s handling of 9/11. Here he at least keeps things simple. He wants to globe-trot to other countries, mostly in Europe, to highlight specific public services that are better handled there than in America: the generous vacation time in Italy; the extravagant school lunches in France; prisons in Norway where the inmates are actually (maybe, it seems dicey) reformed; free women’s health clinics in Tunisia. These are often ideals inspired by forgotten American ideas that get gleefully fulfilled elsewhere but are downright miserable, even Dark Ages in the U.S. of A.

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If one digs deep, or even just a little, into his segments one can find plenty of sloppy thinking, even outright distortions. (Kyle Smith’s rightishattack on the film does a fine job of crunching some numbers.) But if one takes him at his word, it’s more of a utopian thought experiment, not a recipe for how to fix some of America’s failings. “I want to pick the flowers, not the weeds,” Moore says early on, thus exonerating him, in a way, from bringing rigorous reportage. He wants us to imagine a country where happiness and good health are primary goals, where obviously failing public services aren’t sustained by a culture ideologically adamant about keeping to the same-old.

Moore’s goal, it could be argued, isn’t that far from the paradise laid out in John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a song that’s long been a bugaboo of the far right, who bristle at even the suggestion, in a pop song, of ridding the world of religion, money, competition and other forms of inequality. That’s an overly literal, even heartless reading on what’s more a fuzzy thought experiment than a regiment to be immediately put into practice. The same goes for the episodes in “Where to Invade Next,” where the sight of French children happily chomping on gourmet meals, complete with a cheese course (!), forces us to think of the slop and vending machine cholesterol bombs offered in American cafeterias. It’s also Moore’s most charming and funny and approachable work since his “TV Nation” days, operating more like bite-sized attacks than a scattershot argument too ambitious for his style. It’s full of holes, plus some overly sentimental stretches, but its goal to make one dream for a better America is only marginally easy to resist.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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