Thursday, 14 April 2016

Spies, arms dealers, and a deflated secular saint

Rudolf Abel – not his real name – was a British-born Russian spy sent by the Soviet Union to the US and arrested in 1957.

James B. Donovan, a lawyer with little experience of criminal law, accepted the brief few others were willing to take up, to defend Abel. Naturally, he lost but he was able to save Abel’s life, if only by arguing that a living Soviet spy could be swapped for an American captured by the Russians, whereas a dead one had no useful purpose.

It turned out to be an inspired decision when, in 1960, Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in a U2 spy plane. Inevitably, Donovan was called in to negotiate the exchange – after all, it was his idea in the first place, wasn’t it? At least in a manner of speaking.

In Steven Spielberg’s film, Bridge of Spies, using a script to which the Cohen brothers contributed, Donovan is ably and engagingly played by Tom Hanks. But the show is stolen by the actor who won the film’s only Oscar (best supporting actor), Mark Rylance – amazing that an actor that good has only recently won himself an international reputation – playing Abel.

Abel, played by Rylance, next to Hanks as his defence counsel
A good story, with a fine script and excellent performances, Bridge of Spies is well worth seeing.

Just as powerful is the TV series the BBC built from John le Carré’s The Night Manager. Watching it tore me apart, between the compulsion to see what happened next, and the foreboding that whatever it was, it would be grim. Since the end of the Cold War, le Carré has made a specialty of writing books which are frankly dismal in outlook, long denunciations of the corruption and injustice of Western society. I don’t disagree with his judgments, but I prefer my reading of thrillers to give me a break instead of rubbing my nose in them. In other words, I’m keener on like The Little Drummer Girl than The Night Manager .

I’d forgotten the ending of the book, except that I had a sense it didn’t leave me feeling any better about myself, the world or anything else. So I kept waiting for the same thing to happen in the series, with growing depression at the idea. Without wanting to hand out any spoilers, the series ends on a substantially different note, which was a relief, although sadly by doing so it felt rather less believable… You can’t have it all, can you?

A star-scattered cast in the BBC's gripping version of
The Night Manager
It’s hard to list all the stunning performances: Hugh Laurie as the ghastly British arms dealer Roper (funny, after House to hear him playing with his native accent once more), Olivia Colman as his nemesis (a highly successful recasting of a male character in the book as a woman), Tom Hollander as Roper’s sidekick and Tim Hiddleston as the night manager were all outstanding. 

In passing, I should say that it was amusing to watch Hollander playing an adversary of Colman’s, after seeing them as husband and wife in Rev

Overall, The Night Managers story’s excellent, the pace just the right side of frenetic and the ending, as I said, cathartic if slightly implausible. Like Bridge of Spies, not to be missed.

I was looking forward to seeing Steve Jobs, with its screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Certainly, the writing abounds with great Sorkin-isms, probably the best being the moment when Jobs berates a colleague, Andy, for being too slow in his work.

ANDY: … this can’t be fixed in seconds.

STEVE: You didn’t have seconds, you had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time.

ANDY: Well someday you’ll have to tell us how you did it.

The structure of the film is creative too, as it simply tracks the behind-the-scenes tensions at one product launch after another, in effect telling the story of Jobs’ relationship with his colleagues and his family through a series of conversations (well, mostly rows) and flashbacks.

Most striking was seeing the Jobs’s saintly image being punctured. I don’t know what to call the opposite of a hagiography, where a reputed saint is cut back down to mortality, but this was certainly it. Unfortunately, just as a hagiography tends to be ultimately unconvincing and unsatisfactory, so was its reverse.

Steve Jobs: left a little to be desired
The film left me disappointed, hoping for more than it delivered. Plenty of good material in the script, some fine performances (particularly by Michael Fassbender in the title role and Kate Winslet, with a curious accent, as his marketing executive), but somehow it didn’t quite work. The verdict? Should have tried harder.

No comments: