Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

After a relatively long break, Steven Spielberg is back behind the director’s chair, and it was worth the wait.

Reading the description of Bridge of Spies, his first film since the hugely successful biopic Lincoln, it has all the hallmarks of some of his greatest achievements in cinema. It’s based on a true story. It’s a story about individual battles within a larger situation. It stars Tom Hanks. It would have been a surprise if this wasn’t a huge success.

Set between 1957 and 1960 during the height of the Cold War, the film focuses on James B. Donovan (Hanks), a lawyer tasked with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a pilot whose U-2 spy plane has been shot down over the Soviet Union. The negotiation concerns trading Powers for Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet KGB spy held captive in the USA who Donovan has previously defended in court. However, tensions rise when Donovan shows his determination to include an additional US citizen – student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) – in a move that seemingly only he is keen to see through.

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The film at times threatens to be sabotaged by a slow pace, though Spielberg keeps it going just enough to avoid it becoming a snooze-fest. The plot is one full of intricacies that reward the attentive viewer, so I’m not sure the modern audiences will get it in the same way they did with Schindler’s List, for example. [1]

This is an ode to traditional storytelling and any movements it makes to remind us of Spielberg’s supreme talents are trumped by its underlining of Tom Hanks as one of the greatest living actors. This is not a story about espionage, politics or the Cold War. It is a film about one man’s unwavering desire to stick to his principles. Hanks portrays Donovan as a totally unassuming man whose aggression is only touched on when he feels the principles for which he stands are threatened. As with most of his best roles, it has a way of pulling you in and asking you what you would do in his shoes.

If it is considered for any awards in the next few months, it will be for Hanks as an actor in a leading role. For all the clever cinematography and attentive set design, they are merely the stage on which Hanks is allowed to fly.

Bridge of Spies is release in cinemas worldwide on 27th November 2015.

[1] I’m well aware that this sounds condescending. It is fueled directly by the woman in front of me who three times during the film decided to have a quick check of her phone next to her pocket. Whilst it was only a minor distraction for me (it wasn’t so bad to warrant me tapping her on the shoulder), she missed two critical plot points and the description of what the characters did next in the final credits. Definitely a justification for the theory that the audience’s participation level is as important as the care put into a film.

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Atari: Game Over (Zak Penn, 2014)

The Video Game E.T. the Extra Terrestrial is an infamous piece of video gaming history. Everyone knows how it went: in 1983 Howard Scott Warshaw (Yars’ Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark) was given five weeks to produce a game for the Atari 2600 system alongside the release of the film and in time for the Christmas market. An over-confident board pushed to produce a market-saturating amount of cartridges based on the game being a best-seller, but when the reviews came in and everyone discovered that the game was terrible, the sales dried up. Atari started getting large amounts of returns of the cartridge and realised they were haemorrhaging money, so (the legend has it) they decided to dump some 700,000 cartridges in a landfill in New Mexico.

This film covers the history of the gaming industry, specifically Atari, the background to the game’s release and Howard Scott Warshaw’s part in the game. The main point of interest, though, was built around the highly anticipated excavation of the landfill to uncover the truth behind the cover-up and see if the burial really happened. I won’t ruin the result of the excavation, though it was a huge news story when it happened.

A happy treasure hunter. I guess he could now "go home".

A happy treasure hunter. I guess he could now “go home”.

The film was of huge interest to me and the subject matter was something I was happy to dedicate an hour of my life to. The director, as the film clearly lays out, is of great stock, having recently help screenwrite several huge Marvel films (including The Avengers). However, in comparison to Blackfish (which I watched in the same sitting), the storytelling failed to get me hooked. It has a short running time so there was no padding, but it just lacked the emotional power that is so evident in the great documentaries or modern cinema. There was nothing terrible about it – there was some good analysis of Atari in their booming year, a great side-story with Ernest Cline (author of the excellent Ready Player One) and a very brief cameo from George R.R. Martin. I just didn’t make the connection I hoped I would.

I perhaps wonder whether the short running time wasn’t enough. there was easily a further ten minutes on each of the two main topics: the history of Atari as a company being the first and the excavation of the landfill site being the second. I left wanting to find out more and though the information is available on the internet I don’t think there was a better platform than this to tell the whole story.

For a more engaging and humorous take on the excavation, check out Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie, which pays no attention to the facts and spends its time trying to keep us entertained instead. Atari: Game Over counts as a near miss for me.

Atari: Game Over is available now on Netflix.