'The Martian' & 'Bridge of Spies'

Men on a Mission
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To hell with postmodern irony. Here are two unabashedly earnest movies with straight-arrow heroes: The Martian gives us an astronaut who survives all alone on Mars after being left for dead by his crewmates during a windstorm, while Bridge of Spies presents a real-life lawyer, James Donovan, who pursues justice in the face of public opinion and then negotiates a diplomatic maneuver that frees two Americans from the clutches of the Soviet Union.

Watching The Martian made me feel like an ingrate. Here is a science-fiction movie dedicated not only to getting its science right but also to dramatizing the way scientists and astronauts perform under pressure, and how NASA must weigh the relative values of achieving a specific mission, safeguarding its public image, and caring for the imperiled lives of individual astronauts. And the movie has more going for it than just good intentions. Its scientific accuracy often leads to thrills: when the stranded NASA botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) uses some of his oxygen supply to create fire, he underestimates the amount of oxygen his own breath produces and nearly blows himself to pieces. The film’s last few minutes will have you biting your nails as the commander of the rescue mission (Jessica Chastain) floats outside her spacecraft waiting to grab Mark as he hurtles through space.

Drew Goddard’s script, based on a novel by Andy Weir, is shrewd about how the PR concerns of any governmental agency compete with strictly humanitarian obligations. NASA’s head honcho (Jeff Daniels) certainly wants to get Mark back alive but cavils at telling the public too much too soon, aware that hard decisions must sometimes be made away from public pressure. Even scientists can be excluded from decision-making: when a brilliant astronomer comes up with a spectacular but iffy rescue plan, the boss curtly ejects him from the office in order to confer with other higher-ups. This is a hardheaded movie.

Most of the cast turn in appropriately understated performances, especially Damon (stoic but vulnerable) and Chastain (conflicted but steely). Benedict Wong’s character, a jet-propulsion specialist, embodies yeomanly pluck, while Sean Bean convincingly portrays a mission director whose compassion leads to insubordination. But I found Jeff Daniels much too supercilious as NASA’s chief executive. He’s carried over his let-me-explain-everything-to-you-idiots manner from his HBO series, The Newsroom, but his character here is working with near-geniuses, so it’s out of place.

The Martian also has humor (Damon, driving a space buggy containing enough plutonium to send him to blazes, listens to a tape of Donna Summers singing “Hot Stuff”), pathos, and idealism—not just about American know-how but about humanity in general, with Chinese scientists putting aside their secrecy concerns to help fellow space explorers.

So why did the movie finally make me feel like an ingrate? Why didn’t I feel an affection and excitement equal to my admiration? Well, despite the earthbound NASA scenes, this is essentially a Robinson Crusoe yarn, and such a yarn must evoke two emotions that The Martian avoids almost entirely: loneliness and wonder. Our hero spends nearly two years on a desert of a planet (the movie was made too late to include the latest news that Mars has water), initially expecting to spend four. The passing of time must weigh on his spirit, yet the film does virtually nothing to convey this. Indeed, the narrative is flippantly elliptical. The months fly by in a series of captions: “three months later,” “seven months later,” etc. It’s implausible to think that Mark keeps so busy with his survival tasks that he never encounters boredom. What does he do to counter it? Does he have any books, aside from tech instructions? Vivid dreams and nightmares? Does he pray? Meditate? Exercise? He records himself on a video log for the benefit of NASA, but does he ever babble to himself out of loneliness? Near-crazy, Crusoe ran down to the water’s edge to shout out the Psalms, just to hear his own voice, but Mark just keeps smiling stoically. For me, this diminishes his heroism. The film’s director, Ridley Scott, has suggested that Mark never feels truly alone because of the support of his colleagues. Yes, but even when they manage to communicate with him, it’s only through computer messaging. Mark never sees faces or hears voices. Friday saved Crusoe’s sanity but there’s no Friday in The Martian and, apparently, we’re never meant to feel the need for one. There’s a fatal lack of empathy in this film.

There’s also a strange lack of awe. Late in the movie Mark observes, with a note of astonishment in his voice, “I’m the first person alone on an entire planet.” But that’s the first note of wonder struck by the movie, and, despite the employment of 3-D, nothing in the visuals comes close to evoking a sense of the sublime. Mars remains a backdrop, never a real—and frighteningly empty—world. Mark is a can-do hero, yes, but the entire film is a can-do straight-ahead narrative with no breathing room for amazement.

 

HOW ODD TO THINK that Steven Spielberg was once regarded by critics as a sort of Peter Pan of cinema, providing kids, and the kids abiding inside adults, with adventure stories on the high seas and other exotic locales. Nowadays—after Schindler’s List, Lincoln, Saving Private Ryan, and several other projects—he seems more like a pop historian wresting tales of heroism out of the annals of European and American history. In fact, Spielberg the master of juvenile thrills hasn’t vanished but lurks within Spielberg the mature chronicler, sometimes helping him remain lively, sometimes undermining him with kid-stuff simplifications. As witness his latest, Bridge of Spies.

The first third of the script (by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, derived from several nonfiction accounts, including James Donovan’s memoir Strangers on a Bridge) shows how Donovan, in 1957, was pressured by our government into defending Rudolf Abel (real name: Vilyam Fisher), a man accused—and almost certainly guilty—of being a Soviet spy. The government’s aim was to show the world that American justice doesn’t railroad anyone. The hiring of an insurance lawyer for an espionage case was probably intended to guarantee a guilty verdict, but Donovan did better than expected, saving Abel from capital punishment but bringing public obloquy on himself, even death threats. Later, in the early 1960s, when spy pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the U.S.S.R., Donovan was dispatched by the CIA to bring about a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers. Without encouragement from the agency, he also secured the release of a hapless American student arrested by the East German police during the chaos leading up to the erection of the Berlin Wall.

The acting is excellent. Tom Hanks, who plays Donovan, has really become his generation’s Spencer Tracy: gravity without pomposity, courage without bravado, manliness without machismo. Equally impressive is the film’s authentic look. Spielberg and his technical collaborators have magisterially evoked the United States and the Germany of the late 1950s and early ’60s: the relatively formal attire of people on their way to work in New York City, the men still wearing hats; the righteous stiffness of secretaries for big-shot lawyers and the pervading quiet of the office staff; the big, boxy TV sets in American living rooms, where whole families actually watched the news together. When Donovan pleads a case before the Supreme Court, he wears not just an ordinary suit but British-tailored morning dress. Even better is the Berlin reconstruction. The dim, dank look of governmental rooms emphasizes the Kafkaesque quality of Donovan’s back-door negotiations with officials unwilling to reveal their true functions or even their real identities.

But Spielberg is so eager to certify Donovan’s heroism that he presents him in the early legal scenes as virtually alone in his pursuit of justice, without solid support from government, colleagues, or even his own family. The era’s McCarthyite paranoia certainly did real harm to innocent people, but Spielberg’s stylized treatment of it is often ludicrous. When all the passengers on a train taking Donovan to work spot his photo in a newspaper, they eye him with such hostility you could swear they were about to lynch him. The scene belongs in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, not in a serious biopic.

The German scenes are much better and earn their suspense honestly, for the turmoil of Berlin doesn’t need melodramatic underlining. But even here a streak of juvenility in the director somewhat spoils things. His handling of the marvelous actor Mark Rylance, who plays Abel, makes of this possibly dangerous spy nothing but a sweet grandfather figure, stoic, benevolently beaming, somewhat pawky. I’m guessing this is because, like most creators of adventure stories, Spielberg favors bromance among his heroes. Just as D’Artagnan had his three musketeer pals and Richard Dreyfuss bonded with Roy Scheider in Jaws, Donovan must tear up when this nice old man is finally released on the bridge of the film’s title. But the pathos is misplaced. Donovan was a hero because he defended an important constitutional principle and later rescued two Americans, not because he realized that Soviet agents are people, too.

Then again, how many other directors could have taken such a hoary trope as the FBI tailing a spy through New York crowds and refreshed it through sheer cinematic skill? And how many could make the downing of the U2 plane as exciting as the outer-space rescue in The Martian? Despite its outbreaks of puerility, Bridge of Spies grips.

Published in the November 13, 2015 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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