Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Two Films Use True Events For Rich Narratives

Two new movies are out dealing with politics, intrigue and international affairs.
Both boast big-name stars with marquee value.
Both are based on true stories, though one seems a bit more authentic than the other.
And both deliver old-fashioned narratives with real-life characters, sizzling conflict, sly dashes of humor and (surprise!) no sex scenes.

The first is Our Brand Is Crisis, a comedy-drama directed by David Gordon Green and written by Peter Straughan. It is a fictionalized account based on the 2005 documentary film of same name by Rachel Boynton, about the American political campaign strategies used by Greenberg Carville Shrum (GCS) in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election. The film stars Sandra Bullock, Scoot McNairy, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie and Ann Dowd.
The story: In 2002, Bolivian politician Pedro Castillo (a fictionalized version of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada) hires American James Carville's political consulting firm, Greenberg Carville Shrum, to help him win the 2002 Bolivian presidential election. GCS brings in Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) to manage the campaign in Bolivia. Battling her arch nemesis, the opposition's political consultant Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), Bodine successfully uses American political campaign strategies to lead Castillo to victory against Victor Rivera (a fictionalized version of socialist candidate Evo Morales).
But there's more to the tale than that. Castillo is not what he appears to be. Both Bodine and Candy (a Cerville-eque character) seemed burnt out and Bodine is looking for something more our of life, something deeper, something more meaningful.
And the film eventually hinges on more that the outcome of the race, taking several twists and turns toward its conclusion which also features a tantalizing generational divide. This is a smart, sassy, acerbic, funny and thought-provoking film that lifts the lid off the world of mass manipulation and much of the credit for this has to go to Bullock and Thornton and a superb supporting cast. 
If you're a political junkie, this movie will make you want to run away and join a campaign -- any campaign, anywhere. Parts of it are like an aphrodisiac for politicos and the script contains some of the greatest campaign-related quotes you'll ever hear.

The second new film of note, Bridge of Spies also involves politics but in a different way -- on a broader, more perilous, more consequential scale.
This is an historical drama-thriller directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay written by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. The film stars Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, and Alan Alda. Based on the 1960 U-2 incident during the Cold War, the film tells the story of lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) who is entrusted with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell)—a pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union—in exchange for Rudolf Abel (Rylance), a captive Soviet KGB spy held under the custody of the United States.
Hanks is superb as a lawyer who specializes in insurance settlements and is asked by his partners to take on Abel's defense. The United States believe that Abel is a KGB spy, but wants him to have a fair trial to reduce the Soviet Union's chance to use it for propaganda. Donovan meets with Abel in prison, where the Russian agrees to accept his help. But, Abel refuses to cooperate with the US government on any revelations of the intelligence world.
When Donovan asks Abel why he doesn't seem worried (since he's facing the death penalty) Abel calmly answers: "Would it help?"
Although Donovan takes his work seriously, no one—including the prosecuting attorneys, the judge, his firm, or his family—expects him to mount a strong defense of Abel. His efforts to seek acquittal are met with shock and anger by the American public, he is deluged with hate mail, and his life is threatened, but he continues to fight.
Abel is found guilty of all charges, but Donovan convinces the judge to sentence him to 30 years imprisonment, rather than death, on the grounds that Abel may one day be valuable as a bargaining chip with the USSR. 
Well, that's enough of the story for now.
Hanks is superb -- a great star at the top of his game. And Rylance is wonderfully idiosyncratic and dead-on as Abel. He (and perhaps Hanks as well) seem destined to snag Oscar nominations. 
Spielberg's direction is careful, measured, and rich on details, painting vivid, authentic  pictures while never, ever getting in the way of the story. 
This is Hollywood movie-making at its best. It brings to mind the finest work of people like Selznick and Wyler. Richly engrossing, highly evocative, superb!

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