I opted to review these films together because each is a little miracle; each represents the best effort in a long while from a director who seemed to have left his best days behind him. The Martian is the greater triumph in that respect–I’m not a big fan of Lincoln or Tintin (War Horse is pending further review), but they’re a damn sight better than The Counselor or Exodus: Gods & Kings–but I’m very glad to have both.
Moreover, when you take away the career-revival narrative, you’re left with two excellent films. And that’s what matters most.
The Martian, of course (if you haven’t seen it, why not?), deals with Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut stranded on Mars after his teammates believe him lost in a storm. He draws upon his immense scientific and technological knowledge to survive, but knows he must contact NASA if he’s to have any hope of rescue. NASA, however, is caught up in their own bureaucracy, as the head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) and the director of the Mars missions (Chiwetel Ejiofor) bicker over whether Watney can be saved, and whether it is practical so to do. The public relations side of things–personified by Kristen Wiig–doesn’t make resolving the issue any easier.
When he does get in touch with NASA, matters do not become any simpler, and each victory (he successfully cultivates potatoes in the Martian soil using his own feces) is followed by a setback (a pressurization failure destroys his garden). Meanwhile, the powers at NASA continue argue over what do do and whether or not to tell Watney’s teammates that he still lives…
Bridge of Spies, meanwhile, is the story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer who, on the strength of his work in the Nuremberg trials, is recruited in 1957 to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy who has been arrested by the FBI. Though to do so makes him rather unpopular, this being the height of the Cold War, he accepts the assignment, though the evidence against Abel is such that he is quickly convicted. Donovan then appeals the verdict in the Supreme Court, further drawing scorn from those who want to see Abel hanged.
But when Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down by the Soviets while flying a U-2 spy plane, Donovan is called upon to negotiate a trade with the Soviets; Abel for Powers. The trade is set to take place in East Berlin–a very tense place as the Berlin Wall is in the process of being built–and when American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested by the East German authorities, Donovan insists that Pryor be set free as well, a condition which threatens to jeopardize the whole exchange.
I began this review by saying each film represented a kind of renewal for their director, and it seems only right to delve right into their respective efforts. Going purely off of direction, Spielberg comes out narrowly on top–he’s my #2 so far and Scott is my #4–in part because he made the (narrowly) superior film.
Always a sentimentalist, Spielberg in recent years seemed to be retreating into respectability. Lincoln in particular tries to humanize Honest Abe and show that he was a flawed human being and not above the less-glamorous facets of politics–but its attempts at earthiness are self-conscious and in the end it comes too close to hagiography for my liking. It’s a good film, but too cautious–and too clearly chomping at the bit of caution–to be truly great.
Bridge, for the most part, evades those issues. The script is partly to thank, but watching the film I felt Spielberg’s work was looser, fresher, and more vivid than it had been in quite some time–possibly since Minority Report. If Lincoln feels like it’s consciously trying to animate the past, Bridge brings it to life, more by focusing on the story and letting the history take care of itself. That this era represented Spielberg’s own youth may have helped, as he seems more comfortable with the material at every turn.
Take the juxtaposition of Donovan’s son being shown Duck and Cover with the commencement of Abel’s trial, or the opening sequence which shows agents tracking down Abel, setting up the period and story with a minimum of dialogue or music, or the scene where Powers is shot down–it feels a touch exaggerated for the sake of drama, but that doesn’t make any less visceral.
Kudos is due to Spielberg’s regular collaborators, namely editor Michael Kahn and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who do excellent work throughout–the juxtaposition of Duck and Cover and the trial is particularly striking, as the bailiff’s “All rise!” leads to the children rising for the Pledge of Allegiance, or a tear trickles down the son’s face as images of apocalypse flicker in front of him. Kaminski also eschews the overly muted palettes of so many modern period pieces in favor of a color scheme which is more natural–and when necessary, evocative.
Spielberg does give into his excesses once or twice–rather than ending with Donovan standing on the titular bridge, a striking and fitting final image, we must see him go home, go back to his family, be recognized by them as a hero (having initially claimed he was going out of the country on a business trip), and finally take a train ride, whereupon he sees boys scaling a backyard fence just as refugees scaled the Berlin Wall. It’s not nearly enough to ruin the film, but it does blunt it just a little.
The trends in Spielberg’s recent work, while regrettable, are identifiable and understandable. But the trends of Scott’s career defy easy analysis. He hasn’t slowed down–since 2000 he hasn’t gone more than a year without a new film–but when you set aside American Gangster and Prometheus (which was itself far from perfect), the last few years are rather distressing: Body of Lies met with indifference, Robin Hood was shockingly drab, The Counselor is inexplicable, and Exodus: Gods & Kings has no reason whatever to exist.
These failures suggest a director who has lost his way, and while he doesn’t decisively find it with The Martian, he seems to be having more fun with a film than he has in a long while, and we share in it. Aside from Watney’s self-surgery early on, there’s not much of the visceral bleakness of his best work; indeed, that surgery is capped by Watney’s muttered “Fuck”, the first sign that Watney will draw not only on his ingenuity, but on his sense of humor to survive. I’m not so sure the Globes are right in listing The Martian as a comedy, but Scott endeavors to embrace the humor of the material, rather than muting it.
He doesn’t always seem comfortable with the comic side of things. There are too many shots of characters chuckling at each other’s jokes, and the light-hearted tone undermines the film’s suspense at times, but on the whole, despite the length, he makes a brisk and lively film, his most genuinely entertaining film in years. Despite the length (141 minutes–coincidentally about the same as Bridge) it never drags. He’s been mooted as a potential threat to win Best Director, and I wouldn’t mind too much if he did; it’s not like he wasn’t snubbed for better films.
The writing also proves a major part of both films’ success. Bridge was written by the Coens and playwright Matt Charman, and while the Coens’ attempts to write for other directors haven’t turned out too well (there’s really no trace of their hand in Unbroken), here it does shine through. There’s a wryness to the film, from our introduction to Donovan as he skillfully debates the finer points of liability with a fellow lawyer, to Abel’s deadpan refrain of “Would it help?”, when Donovan notes his lack of fear.
And the scene where Powers and other pilots are screened for the U-2 program is genuinely fascinating; it’s almost surreally odd, taking place in a quintessential 50s hotel (with sickly green-gray walls and red neon) that suggests Burton–or Wes Anderson by way of Kubrick–and boasting off-kilter, deadpan pacing and delivery which thoroughly delighted me in the watching. I’m truly not sure what they were going for, but it convinced me that this film was something special.
The characters, for their part, are efficiently drawn. Donovan has the ironclad integrity of the Spielbergian hero, but with a shrewdness which makes him more entertaining. Abel is an unassuming, amiable enigma–an artist who seems to treat espionage as nothing more than his day job. They dominate the film–none of the other characters are extensively developed, though CIA agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) has a nice little arc, beginning as a weaselly snoop and ending as an ally of Donovan’s. But I never felt like the film was stuffed with hollow puppets.
The wheeling and dealing can get a bit convoluted at times, and one might conclude that Donovan’s success was due as much to luck as his tenacity and integrity, but on the whole it’s one of the best scripts Spielberg has worked with in quite a while, one which mostly counteracts his worst tendencies and bolsters his best.
Drew Goddard’s script for The Martian is based on Andy Weir’s novel; I haven’t read it, but nothing I’ve heard suggests it isn’t a faithful adaptation. I don’t know, then, if Watney’s ingenuity is as absolute in the book, or if works better on the page; on the screen, however, he seems to have it almost too easy, often finding the answer to his problems with minimal trial-and-error. Granted, that wouldn’t be as cinematic, and there are pitfalls along the way, but much of the time it seems as if surviving on Mars isn’t all that hard.
And yet, the procedural aspect of the story is compelling, and Watney himself is a fun hero–not on his own one of the great science fiction protagonists, but a fine foundation for Damon’s performance.
Of course, the story does not belong to Watney alone. We have the sequences at NASA, as heads are butted, deals are made, PR is managed, and solutions are sought, considered, disposed of, and found. The NASA scenes are some of the film’s best, containing not only some of its best-drawn characters (and most compelling dynamics), but also boasting some of the most genuine humor, especially involving the long-suffering head of Jet Propulsion Laboratories (Benedict Wong). The theme of managing public relations and perceptions is the focus of a gentle but distinct satirical finger, and it makes The Martian something more than a mere story of survival.
The script does falter a bit when it follows Watney’s teammates on their ship, the Ares; they’re less fleshed-out as characters, and their humor is less potent. It falls to the actors to pull their dynamic off–though they generally do.
Bridge is dominated acting-wise by Hanks and Rylance, and both are quite good. Hanks simply exudes integrity and makes it engaging, but he’s equally adept at playing Donovan’s quick legal wit and irritability in the face of arrogance. It’s not quite on the level of his work in Captain Phillips, but it’s exactly the performance the film requires. As for Rylance, he seems a likely candidate for Oscar attention, and though I think his performance is a touch overpraised–he never really varies his mode of quiet unassumption–he is as solid in his own way as Hanks, and they work very well together.
Aside from them, the only notable performance is Shepherd’s, who’s quite entertaining in his smug smarminess without making Hoffman a cartoon spook. The rest of the cast–Amy Ryan as Hanks’ wife, Alan Alda as his boss, Peter McRobbie as John Dulles, etc.–all fill their roles just fine, but there are no real standouts. It doesn’t need to be that way, though; the protagonists and the story (and the direction) are strong enough.
The Martian, on the other hand, has a full-blown ensemble backing up its unquestioned lead. Damon doesn’t really put a foot wrong as Watney; whether he’s playing the comic or dramatic side of things, he’s in absolute control, and gives a charming and believable performance throughout. There’s really not much more to say; I can’t think of a single notable complaint I have about his work.
Back on Earth, there are several standouts. Ejiofor is superbly sympathetic, and sympathetically amusing (the scene where he muses on how to interpret the phrase “Are you fucking kidding me” is a gem), as the scientist who grapples with the inanities of bureaucracy while trying to save Watney’s life. Daniels, as the priggish, pragmatic head of NASA, smoothly balances dry humor with pinched tension. Wong is wonderfully dry as the JPL director, of whom Daniels regularly demands miracles, and who delivers–usually with a weary smirk. Wiig, as the frustrated PR director, does the best film work I’ve seen from her (though I haven’t seen Welcome to Me). And Sean Bean (who’s been in two films this year and survived both) is a fine example of virtuous arrogance as the mission director who isn’t about to let his boss tell him what to do.
And then there’s Donald Glover, who all but steals the entire film in, essentially, two and a half scenes. As a whiz-kid astrophysicist who essentially solves the plot, he mixes slapstick, deadpan cockiness, and scientific genius pretty much perfectly. He takes an essentially expository character and makes him one of the film’s highlights.
On the Ares, we have an equally starry assemblage. Jessica Chastain doesn’t have a great deal to work with as the devoted captain, but she’s as convincing as ever. As the mission pilot, Michael Peña brings a little humor to the table but never obscures the character’s staunchly loyal core. Aksel Hennie, Kate Mara, and Sebastian Stan are all quite solid (Mara certainly blows her work in Fantastic Four out of the water), though they essentially act as the straight men to our more colorful protagonists.
The technical aspects of both films are effectively faultless. Having already mentioned the cinematography and editing, I’ll also note Bridge‘s fine score (by Thomas Newman) and excellent period detail. The Martian, for its part, is crisply shot, smartly edited (the “Starman” montage is magnificent), and has a decent score by Harry Gregson-Williams, though the oldies soundtrack tends to overshadow it.
I think I have said all I can possibly say for a good long while about these films. Suffice to say, they’re two of the year’s best, and if you’ve already given The Martian a go or two (I’ve been three times myself), give Bridge a shot. It really is a superior historical drama.
Bridge of Spies: 87/100
The Martian: 86/100