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Few directors have tapped into the zeitgeist as successfully as Stanley Kubrick managed to with his seventh feature: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb relentlessly mocks American Cold War hysteria and the fervent ‘anti-Commie’ nationalism of the early 1960’s, ending with a scene in which a pilot in a cowboy hat sits astride a hydrogen bomb, shouting ‘yee-ha!’ as it plummets toward a Russian target (the US would have an actual, real-life movie cowboy eyeing up the ol’ Red Menace within 16 years, of course). Still, it seems as though American audiences at the time were able to take the ribbing, and Dr. Strangelove is still widely considered to be a comedy classic on that side of the Atlantic today, though over there and over here in the UK one or two prominent critics have since questioned the film’s occasional lack of subtlety (those names!) as well as its sneery, superior tone. (The fact that co-screenwriter Terry Southern was an American lends a degree of much-needed legitimacy to the film’s holier-than-thou barbs, if you ask me).

The first test screening for Kubrick’s pitch-black satire was due to take place on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. The film’s release date was duly put back a few months to January 1964, as it was felt that the American public was in no mood for a Cold War comedy; the Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of many, as well, and the long- and short-term stability and future of the US looked far from certain at the time. It’s no surprise, then, that there were concerns as to how the central conceit that an insane American Brigadier General has the ability to single-handedly launch a nuclear attack on Russia, thereby triggering Armageddon would play out with audiences, but the film was a critical and commercial success, and it became Columbia’s biggest hit of the year. (That said, its box office receipts do pale in comparison next to Goldfinger, Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, the three highest-grossing smashes of 1964, and it wasn’t even the most popular Peter Sellers film that year, earning less than both The Pink Panther and A Shot In The Dark.)

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Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove

There’s much to enjoy here, but I’ll just run through a few highlights. Sellers is in fine fettle, playing three of the film’s principal characters: first the Terry-Thomas-like Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a man whose stiff English politesse ensures he spends far too long tiptoeing around nutjob Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the man who has set the wheels of war in motion; secondly the American President Merkin Muffley, who Sellers plays fairly straight for the most part, though there’s some terrific ad-libbing when he’s on the phone to his Russian counterpart; and lastly Dr. Strangelove himself, a wheelchair-bound scientist and former Nazi whose own apparent craziness during the final stages of the film seems to capture the ridiculousness of the situation better than any other character. Sellers was due to play a fourth part – a contractual stipulation insisted on by Columbia in the wake of the previous Sellers/Kubrick collaboration Lolita – but after much protestation and a sprained ankle the role of the cowboy pilot Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong went to rodeo rider and actor Slim Pickens. Sellers was relieved; Pickens, if the rumour is to be believed, thought that the film was a straight drama.

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George C. Scott as Buck Turgidson

Sellers was nominated for an Oscar, and when he subsequently lost out to My Fair Lady’s Rex Harrison, the Academy was accused of opting for the safe, conservative choice. Yet I think there are better comic performances in the film, notably by Hayden and George C. Scott, who plays the jingoistic US Air Force General Buck Turgidson with a wholly-necessary brashness and swagger (sample quote: ‘Gee, I wish we had one of those doomsday machines’). Hayden was apparently happy to chew scenery, but Scott and Kubrick argued on set about the more outlandish behaviour of the Turgidson character, the former suggesting it needed to be toned down if the film was to work. However the director cajoled the actor into performing at least one over-the-top take of each scene, which he supposedly promised would not be considered for inclusion in the editing suite; as it turned out this was a lie, and apparently at least three of the takes made it into the final cut, causing Scott to state at a later date that he would never work with Kubrick again.

Then we have the brilliant sets, designed by Ken Adam, which occupied three main sound stages at Shepperton Studios. The most iconic, of course, is the cavernous war room, with its giant oval table, suspended UFO-style light and the large map that hangs on the wall, its blinking LEDs offering a constant, awful reminder of the terrible event about to occur. Adam also designed the magnificent lairs in Dr. No and Goldfinger, but this must surely rank as one of his best achievements, and I like to think that it was his idea to add in the (even bigger!) buffet table that repeatedly attracts the Soviet Ambassador, who seems more concerned with the state of his stomach than the apparent end of the world. Whoever it was deserves a pat on the back. This space is big, and much of it is empty, contrasting with the mock-up of the interior of the B-52 Stratofortress bomber on its way to Russia, which is cramped, with little room for maneouvre. In this plane and on the army base where Ripper and Mandrake can be found we constantly see posters in the background that state ‘Peace Is Our Profession’, the motto of the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, here shown up for what it is: a ridiculous and wholly inappropriate ad slogan. These posters seem to define those two sets more than any one piece of furniture ever could.

Arguably the most impressive element of Dr. Strangelove is the screenplay by Kubrick and Southern, who used Peter George’s ‘serious’ suspense novel Red Alert as a basis. There is an undeniable superciliousness to the script that has often been attributed to Kubrick (as well as the incessant ad-libs by Sellers), but one can’t deny the sheer pleasure obtained from hearing the dry, witty lines that are casually tossed toward the attendant viewer amidst all the doom and gloom (a perennial favourite being Muffley’s assertation ‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room’ as political bigwigs squabble next to him). I also love Turgidson’s desperate plea ‘Sir, you can’t let him in here. He’ll see everything! He’ll see the big board!’ as the Russian emissary arrives, as if that even matters in the face of mass human extinction. The writing is key in terms of balancing the utter horror and hopelessness of the situation – still just as scary a prospect today as it ever was, even if the actual specifics of the missile launch in the film are as ludicrous as they were in 1964 – with the ridiculousness of (male) human nature; even in the direst of circumstances these men exhibit an unshakeable desire to preserve self-interest or to improve their own lives, and also to maintain some kind of order, or respect for protocol. Meanwhile everything around them is turning to shit and their own idiosyncracies or incompetence damns us all. Ultimately that’s something we don’t want to contemplate too deeply in real life, but we can certainly laugh at the idea of it here.

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George. Based on Red Alert by Peter George.
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones.
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor.
Editing: Anthony Harvey.
Music:
Laurie Johnson.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
94 minutes.
Year:
1964.

17 Comments

There’s undoubtedly a lot to admire in Steven Spielberg’s latest film: Cold War drama Bridge Of Spies is certainly well-crafted, like a solid piece of oak furniture, or a Paul Weller album. The acting is commendable, too, and in writing about the diplomacy of the era Matt Charman (whose screenplay was ‘polished’ by the Coen Brothers) seems aware that the GDR/Soviet relationship is almost as interesting as the frosty, delicate one between America and its Communist enemy. The Coens have been credited with injecting the occasional joke or running gag into the screenplay, which is a general assumption that may be doing Charman a discredit, but whoever is responsible has done a good job, as this film seemed to effortlessly draw laughs from the audience in my screening. In short watching it is undoubtedly a pleasure, but I’ve been trying to put my finger on the reason (or reasons) I don’t love it for three or four days now, and haven’t quite managed to do so. I suspect it’s something to do with the predictability that comes with watching Spielberg’s films these days, which creeps in here and there, but even as I type this sentence I feel a nagging sense that I should just suck it up and concentrate on appreciating the many positive aspects of this filmmaker’s work.

Based on real life events, the film stars Tom Hanks in a kind of 98% Optimal Tom Hanksness role as insurance lawyer James Donovan, who in the late 1950s was asked to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, excellent) after he was caught by the FBI in Brooklyn. It’s one of those everyman roles Hanks has spent a career perfecting: wife (Mary McKenna Donovan, played by Amy Ryan), kids, hat, raincoat, briefcase, ability to identify what makes the U.S. Constitution important, skill to gently make others aware that they’re abusing it, etc. etc. Donovan is a decent man who is asked to step up and act at a level that’s really above his pay grade, but as it’s his government doing the asking he duly obliges with only a modicum of grumbling, even when some nutcase shoots up the family home. Hanks is so good at this kind of thing you’d be forgiven for thinking it was easy.

The first half of the film largely stays with Abel and Donovan, who get on well despite the pressure and discomfort the trial brings to both of their lives, though sporadically we drop in on Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a rookie American pilot about to fly a spy plane over Soviet territory, and later an American economics student based in Berlin called Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). It’s when the action fully moves to Germany that the three separate strands of the plot converge, and the second half of Bridge Of Spies is mainly concerned with the political wrangling as Abel is swapped for the two American men. This Donovan negotiates with a mixture of bemusement and opportunistic chutzpah, and the screenplay smartly turns the ‘fish out of water’ element of the first half on its head, with Abel’s American sniffle transferring symbolically to Donovan as he passes back and forth across wintry Berlin.

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Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel in Bridge Of Spies

There are times when Spielberg attempts to treat the US and Soviet governments in an even-handed way, such as the inclusion of separate scenes that suggest Abel and Powers endured similarly one-sided show trials. Occasionally he lets the facade slip, for example when he directly compares the treatment of Powers at the hands of the KGB with the treatment of Abel at the hands of the FBI; the former is tortured with water and his captors cruelly deny him any sleep in order to try and break him, while we see Abel relaxing and carrying on his hobby of painting while being held in a cell in the US, as opposed to undergoing any rigorous questioning about his activities. Even as Spielbergian celebrations of supposed American values go that’s a little hard to swallow, but it’s no surprise to see this kind of juxtaposition, which emphasises a level of fair play and kindness that the old enemy is seemingly incapable of. It’s also no surprise that any American behaviour going against the grain is largely supressed or unseen, unless the perpetrator can be gently lectured or cut down in a face-to-face meeting with Hanks’ Donovan (cue the brass in Thomas Newman’s stirring soundtrack). Elsewhere a few scenes are included that reflect badly one way or another on some of the Germans and Russians involved in the negotiations, such as Sebastian Koch’s lawyer Wolfgang Vogel or Mikhail Gorevoy’s KGB chief Schischkin, but they do tend to add to the light, comic touch, at least, and are balanced out with some cold comments by Scott Shepherd’s CIA operative. Labouring the light and dark / good and bad comparisons, when Abel and Powers are exchanged on the Glienicke Bridge a remarkably tense scene, given that the actual outcome of the swap is well-known the screenplay implies that the American soldier is returning to warm, caring agents and military staff, while the fate of the Soviet spy is less clear.

Of course a partial defence against any historical inaccuracies or accusations of bias is there for all to see in the film’s opening credits: Bridge Of Spies is a drama that is based on true events, which in many eyes exonerates the writers and the director from criticism. This declaration does at least make it easy to overlook some of the more blatant fabrications that have been included to add more supsense and a few extra thrills: a couple of scenes in which shots are fired didn’t actually happen in real life, or at least not to Donovan, but I believe the unofficial 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that at least two guns must appear in any film emanating from Hollywood, and Spielberg has to comply with that here. Facetious remarks aside I was impressed by his direction at times – hard not to be – and his ability to subtly suffuse the film with its share of tension and action (a run-in with an East German gang, a pilot trying to escape a burning plane, Abel being tailed through the subway, etc) is clear for all to see. It’s an amusing film, very well acted, and certainly a classy affair in terms of the costume, sets, soundtrack, cinematography et al; I’m just a little turned off by the way Bridge Of Spies compares the two opposite government agencies, even though the focus is primarily on the individuals who are pawns in their game.

Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Will Rogers.
Cinematography: Janusz Kamiński.
Editing: Michael Kahn.
Music:
Thomas Newman.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
141 minutes.
Year:
2015.

 

8 Comments

The-Man-from-U.N.C.L.E.-2015-WallpapersThis light, breezy comedy-thriller by Guy Ritchie doesn’t have all that much in common with its TV show predecessor, other than the basic conceit of uniting an American CIA agent and a Russian KGB operative as a Cold War odd couple, but it does an effective enough job as an origin story; such films are ten-a-penny these days, and this is no less deserving of a franchise than anything else out there, but moderate success at the box office earlier this year may well put the brakes on a mooted sequel actually being made. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer star as the charismatic Napoleon Solo and the reserved Illya Kuryakin respectively, and the pair share plenty of easy chemistry on screen, where both characters make clear their mistrust and misgivings while also displaying a childlike desperation to impress the opposite number; Ritchie’s screenplay imbues their awkward professional relationship with a slight homoerotic edge, but rather than anything serious it would have been a welcome surprise to see openly gay heroes in a mainstream action film, for once – this is all firmly in keeping with the tone of the film and is established through comic innuendo. Sadly I guess anything beyond that might put some people off, even in this day and age, so we’ll have to wait for another director to go for it. There are no risks taken with the plot, either. Rather than getting bogged down in the nitty gritty of the deals and political wranglings on either side of the Iron Curtain, Ritchie moves the pair on from gloomy Berlin to a caper in the dolce vita of mid-’60s Rome at a fairly early stage, and the latter setting informs the film’s style: all sharp suits, men in speedboats, swanky event flirtations, Cinecittà strings and swish hotel rooms. Joining in the fun are Alicia Vikander, who plays a mechanic tied to a family of Nazi-sympathisers-stroke-nuclear-weapons-enthusiasts, and Hugh Grant, who Hugh Grants his way through a minor role as a besuited British spy chief. The emphasis is on fun and froth, as with Ritchie’s previous brace of Sherlock Holmes films, and all told he makes a good fist of it. If your expectations are low you will probably be entertained: the story is as plain as they come but The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is all about the eye candy, while the soundtrack jumps very tastefully from soul (Roberta Flack, Solomon Burke) to sweeping, grandiose Italian period scores and the set pieces are laced with good humour.

Directed by: Guy Ritchie.
Written by: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram (screenplay), Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman, David C. Wilson (story). Based on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. by Ian Fleming, Norman Felton and Sam Rolfe.
Starring: Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander, Hugh Grant, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris.
Cinematography: John Mathieson.
Editing: James Herbert.
Music:
Daniel Pemberton, Various.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
116 minutes.
Year:
2015.

10 Comments