Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sicario and Bridge of Spies

                       Boundary Issues 
                                                   Review by Ken Burke
Emily Blunt is not Nina Kindblad, but you can't go wrong
in getting to know either one of them better; great women.
 First off, I’m pleased to report that my always-wonderful-wife, Nina Kindblad, is feeling a bit better this week in her internal canals than what I reported in my previous posting about The Martian (Ridley Scott), so I’m very happy for that (truth is, she had salmonella, which I probably didn’t get because my gut’s been hardened against harm from almost anything dangerous from being brought up in Texas, eating such delicacies as that mucky dip made from Rotel canned tomatoes and Velveeta “cheese”)—although she’s now getting some very painful headaches at times (again, I’m safe because you need something in your head in order for it to hurt) so she’s not out of the woods yet but we remain optimistic that full recovery is soon on the way with continued medical help; secondly, through a generous offer from my friend, Barry Caine—a truly professional film critic as opposed to the unstructured ramblings that I present here; you should note the site of his own newly-emerging-review-blog,—I attended a press screening of the-just-now-opening-Bridge of Spies so, unlike with my usual week-or-later-after-debut-comments, I’m reviewing this film (just like the paid guys do) as it opens nationwide, with my remarks on it swirled in with analysis of recently-opened Sicario (because I see distinct parallels in the ethical attitudes of the chief protagonists in these films, although you should be able to note the notations separately with a little effort if you want to skip past the Bridge … remarks for now, then check back later after you've had a chance to see it) so please keep that in mind if you don’t want to be irritated by my slew of spoilers, which I do attempt to warn you about on a regular basis with my boilerplate indemnification statement:
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                              Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
An FBI agent trying desperately to follow authorized procedures in working with a task force taking action against drug cartels on the U.S.-Mexico border finds the assignment more grotesquely-violent and legally-questionable than she’s prepared to handle, even as her CIA-led team leaders seem to be on a personal vendetta against their vicious drug-lord target.
                                Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)
As with so many others lately this film’s based on real events: beginning in 1957 the U.S. arrests a Soviet spy then recruits a barely-willing-lawyer to give a public show of a decent defense but in truth most everyone wants him dead; meanwhile a U.S. spy pilot is shot down over Russia in 1960 resulting in this same lawyer being called on to negotiate a spy swap.
What Happens: Opening graphics tell us the term “sicario” originated centuries ago when Jewish mercenaries would clandestinely kill some of their Roman occupiers but now in Mexico the word simply means “hitman.”  Then, we begin (what will be plenty of action) in a sunbaked-suburb of Chandler, AZ where a combo-FBI-SWAT-team, led by tense, meticulous (divorced, for reasons unstated, except that it gives her no immediate family members to care about) Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt), is on the move against a house where some guys from the Mexican Sonora drug cartel (run in its States-side-operations by Manual Díaz [Bernardo P. Saracino]) are supposed to be holding hostages; this is an ultra-surprise-raid, in that a bulldozer is used to smash through a wall of the house (which may say something about the environment-perception-capabilities of the thugs, if they don’t realize that a bulldozer’s in their front yard in broad daylight).  After the expected gunplay and death of the house guards, though, the hostages are nowhere to be found until a stray bullet hole in the wall leads to sheetrock being torn off, revealing the putrid remains of at least 35 bodies hidden in the structure of the building (leading both Kate and her partner, Agent Reggie Wayne [Daniel Kaluuya], to move outside for a quick vomit release); even more troubling, however, is a booby-trap-bomb that causes injuries to the team (including Kate), killing 2 of them.  With revenge burning in her heart (and probably her stomach still not feeling that great yet either—ask Nina about that), Kate volunteers to join a CIA-led-operation intended to manipulate Díaz back into Mexico in order to lead our “no quarter” assassins to revenge-action against the hidden chief of this operation, not with any hopes of conquering the drug trade and its associated killings (at least not until the 20% of the U.S. population hooked on their stronger-than-pot-product can kick the habit) but just consolidating it into the control of the powerful Columbian Medellí cartel that can be more easily worked with by our guys on the Norte side of the Rio Grande.

 Kate’s new accomplices are CIA operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and a secretive, creepy manifestation of the “sicario” ideal, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), who has links to the Colombian drug trade but now's an ally in that he’s after the Sonora head honcho, Fausto Alarcón (Julio Cedillo), for personal revenge in retaliation for the deaths of his wife and daughter back when he was a prosecutor in Juárez (the 2 men do come face-to-face at the near-end of our plot, as Alejandro‘s told, in traditional gangland terms, that those deaths were “business, not personal” but that doesn’t keep him from being very personal in first shooting Fausto‘s wife and 2 children before bringing the drug lord’s career to a close with another well-placed shot).  The first step in the plan is to secretly bring captive Guillermo (Edgar Arreola) from Mexico into the U.S., done in a precision manner with a huge show of force from both countries.  (Although a rescue attempt based on a stalled car at the El Paso-Juárez border results in all of the attempted assassins being killed, including one threatening Kate’s life, all of which makes her even more furiously opposed to the whole gunslinger-attitude-and-procedures of Matt‘s mission, which she rejects as being illegal, immoral [and probably fattening, if they’d had time to stay in Juárez for awhile to gobble up a few plates of refried frijoles], as well as not at all what she thought she was signing up for.)  Matt and Alejandro convince her (very reluctantly, but encouraged by an attempt on her life by a Phoenix cop in league with the cartel as well as assurances from her FBI superiors that she’s now playing by existential-rather-than-book-law: “The boundaries have been moved”) to go along with the plan as a necessary means of preventing as much crime as possible (just as Mexican Federales—more properly called Policía Federal—use intimidation tactics such as hanging the dead, nude bodies of gang members from bridges, hoping to discourse these drug wars), bringing some order to this God-forsaken-region (the depiction of which has brought howls of protests from Juárez officials even as Del Toro offers a rebuttal to their call for a boycott, but the entire border area is implied to be just as lawless given the other gruesome actions that occur elsewhere in this area).

 Ultimately, based on info gained from Guillermo and others—including the existence of a tunnel into Mexico located at the Arizona border—disruption is caused to the cartel’s cash flow operations, requiring Díaz to be called back to Mexico, but he’s tracked down by Alejandro with the unwilling-but-forced-aid of Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández), a corrupt cop (a sad turn for us, in that we’ve been introduced to him as a caring father encouraging his son’s interest in fútbol [that’s soccer to you, yanqui!] only to find that he’s on the payroll of the cartel).  Soon the cop’s dead with Díaz now as the captive, leading our methodical killer right into the honcho’s hacienda where he single-handedly takes out everyone within shooting distance.  Back in the States, Alejandro pays a visit to still-distraught-Kate, once again arguing his case that the end justifies the means, forcing her at gunpoint to sign a document certifying that the operation was done strictly “by the book.”  She tries her best to accept death as her fate rather than abandon her principles but ultimately signs off on the lie; then as Alejandro walks away in the parking lot of her apartment complex she comes out onto the balcony with a chance to terminate him but can’t bring herself to shoot, leaving us not with an impression of her weakness but more of her horrified understanding that he’s probably right, that only the kind of frontier justice that he and Matt are dishing out will have any impact on the terrors being committed in the name of illicit commerce, where the “threat” of being held to the rules of procedural law seems to have little impact, if any.  (Recalling the great classic argument pitting the necessity of sanctioned operations against the actual maintenance of order, as one determined detective remains unimpressed by the enforced-restraints put on him by the District Attorney and a judge attempting to maintain Constitutionally-guaranteed-rights for a suspect not clearly bound to incriminating evidence, even as this “supercop” knows firsthand the identity and danger presented by this vicious killer in the original Dirty Harry [Don Siegel, 1971].)

 What I see immediately in synchronization between Sicario and Bridge of Spies is the moral stance of Kate, finding herself in uncharted territory (for her) in trying to bring order into criminal-driven-chaos shown to be manifested in the same rule-of-law-no-matter-what-the-circumstances-dictate by lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) when first called upon to defend a Russian spy, then sent to East Berlin to arrange a trade of this “enemy of the state” (Rudolf Abel [Mark Rylance]—not noted in the film is that his real name was Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher)—our state that is, with Donovan arguing against a death penalty for Abel, in that he was just doing for his country what we expected our operatives to do for us against our ideological opponents—in order to return a captured U.S. spy (Francis Gary Powers [Austin Stowell]) during the height of the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s-early ‘60s.  Based on fact (most of which seems to hold up rather well to debunking-scrutiny), our story begins in 1957 when U.S. agents capture Abel, who not only denies being a spy but also is denied by Russia as even being a citizen of the U.S.S.R. (he was born in the U.K to Russian émigrés who moved back to their homeland in the early 1920s, but most of that’s extra-filmic-info).  Abel offered a defense of being merely an aging man who loved to paint, but before his arrest we see him in his studio with a wealth of technology which we assume is used for secret transmissions, then in a park retrieving a hollow nickel from under a bench, then opening it back at his dwelling to reveal a mass of tiny encryption.  In order to maintain reasonable relations with the powerful Soviets, our government wanted him to have the appearance of a fair defense so prominent Brooklyn insurance lawyer Sullivan is practically forced by his big-firm-senior-partner, Thomas Watters (Alan Alda), to accept the offer (although he did have experience as a prosecutor at the post-WW II Nuremberg Trials, but that’s barely mentioned, not explored).  However, Sullivan takes his job seriously enough to earn the ire of said boss, along with the trial judge, his wife, Mary (Amy Ryan), and anyone who recognizes him on his subway travels to his job because of his front-page-news-photos in the daily papers.  

 When Abel’s convicted on the 3 espionage and conspiracy counts Donovan turns his attention privately to trial judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) in an attempt to get lengthy jail time for Abel rather than execution (with the implication that Donovan doesn’t see this man’s crimes as being out of keeping for the geopolitical conflicts of the day but with a more overt argument that the U.S. might need Abel in the future as a bargaining chip if one of our own spies were to be captured) which proves effective in that Byers issues a 30-year-sentence for Abel despite howls of protests from the crown in his courtroom, the pubic at large, and (in a much more demure manner) Mrs. Donovan (whose composure is later shattered when some idiot fires shots into their home, terrifying daughter Carol [Eve Hewson] and the 2 younger children), although Dad Donovan's still unmoved in his quest for Constitutional-justice until a failed appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn Abel's conviction.

 By (terrible) chance, a spy-exchange does become necessary a few years later when U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Russia in 1960 on a top-secret-
photo-surveillance-mission, providing a PR nightmare for our government, especially because Powers wasn’t able to destroy his high-altitude-U-2-airplane before being blown out it, thereby allowing most of the wreckage to be recovered by the Soviets (in the film, his rapid descent after being hit by a missile blows the cockpit cover off, almost launching him into those unfriendly skies, so that he’s not able to complete the destruction sequence before being pulled away from the rapidly-hurtling-aircraft) as well as being captured himself (even though he carried a silver dollar modified to hold a tiny poisoned dart that would bring about instant death if scraped across his skin; why he didn’t choose that fate [as with Agent Kate in Sicario, death being the more-professional-choice when confronted by Alejandro at the end of their story] even though he was under direct order to do so isn't explained [just as Kate tried to operate under her own direct-orders of sanctioned-procedure but couldn't bring herself to do it for whatever reason]).  Given the clumsy situation his failures created for U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations at a time when we were trying to demonstrate that we were 
politically, socially, economically, morally superior to our enemies, Powers was looked on with scorn by many in his homefront populace, although when traded for Abel 2 years later he returned essentially as a hero, both to his former squad of former-spy-fly-guys and to the American public.  

 (President John F. Kennedy [not specifically noted in the film until later] presumably felt the responsibility to get our captive back—along with the need to retrieve this guy before he was forced to divulge too much to his Soviet captors[the same concern they had about Abel]as was done more recently with current President Barack Obama arranging for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after 5 years of imprisonment under the Afghanistan Taliban, but, unlike with Powers’ acceptance upon return, Bergdahl’s still being criticized by a good number of his countrymen for renouncing his duties prior to capture, becoming a poor exchange in their minds for the 5 Taliban commanders he was traded for; Bergdahl’s currently facing a court-martial for his alleged crimes, with his defense arguing for no jail time while Senator John McCain calls Bergdahl a “deserter” who should be punished, reminiscent in principle of the calls for Abel’s death over 50 years ago).

 One reason that Powers was so reviled in the days immediately after his capture is that it occurred on May 1, 1960 with photographic proof of the event forcing Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower to admit our high-altitude-sleuthing which completely destroyed a long-awaited-tension-reducing-summit-conference in Paris that May 14 between Ike, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, United Kingdom Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and French President Charles de Gaulle; I guess that Spielberg felt he had enough to cover already in a relatively-standard-running-time-film (although this one’s a  bit longer than usual at 2 hrs. 21 min.) because this aspect of the fallout over Powers’ capture and subsequent trial (he was sentenced to a mere 10 years before being released during the swap) isn’t mentioned at all in Bridge of Spies, but I still remember my rather-naïve-12-year-old’s-disappointment at the collapse of this potentially-critical-series of talks to decrease nuclear proliferation, international tensions, and the constant fear that a planetary-terminating-World War III was upon us (a fear brought almost to tragic reality just a few months after the spy swap in 1962 when Khrushchev and Kennedy squared off that October in the Cuban Missile Crisis that potentially could have turned all of those fears into catastrophe, although the result was generally deemed a victory for Kennedy, which further added to the sense of American triumph that permeates the ending scenes of Bridge …; ironically, Donovan was also involved with Cuba, as the film’s ending graphics note that he helped negotiate the release of 1,113 prisoners from the U.S.-backed-but-disastrously-failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, with the astounding result of getting a total of 9,703 people freed as the result of his efforts).  Whatever the public might have thought of Powers in 1960, though, there seemed no hesitation in getting him home safely so Donovan is called into action once again, this time by CIA Director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie), to quietly negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers, with the understanding that our noble lawyer didn’t officially represent our government even though the trade-off was to occur in international-hot-spot Berlin, forcing Donovan to not only make arrangements with the Russians but also accommodate the wishes of the East Germans, anxious to establish a more independent presence for the German Democratic Republic in the world community than their perception as puppets of Moscow.

 Even though Donovan’s difficult trips into East Berlin (with instructions from his CIA handlers but forced to enter and leave on his own as if he’s just a private businessman) take up a good second half of the film, I’m not going to go into much detail about this poor beleaguered lawyer’s negotiation strategies (partly because of my note-taking-difficulties explained below) except to note that Donovan must contend with many problems including a fake family claiming to be anxious to welcome Papa Abel back home, a critical contact named Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch) who’s initially-essential to the process but without the power to finalize it because of Russian-East German conflicts, the further complication that American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) has been detained behind the recently-constructed-Berlin Wall so Donovan takes it upon himself to insist to Vogel, then later to his superior, that this young man also be released (even though no one else in charge really cares if this aspect of the deal is finalized or not), the constant tension that Donovan faces on his several trips into East Berlin knowing that he could be detained or his passport be confiscated at any time leaving him little recourse for escape (I had just the hint of a similar feeling in 2003 on a train trip from Helsinki into St. Petersburg when Russian soldiers boarded our train for customs inspection, then got concerned about an Orthodox icon purchased in Estonia by a member of our travel group, so we all had to sit there anxiously for quite awhile—passports in limbo—until their questions were sorted out; even though the Cold War was finished and T-shirts were now available in Russia announcing “The Party’s Over,” it was still quite terribly-intimidating watching these guys in their tall military hats and crisp uniforms holding our fate in their firm, suspicious hands), and even just the hard reality of cold, snowy, grey East Berlin where thugs roam the streets including a group that confronts Donovan until he hands over his needed overcoat.

 Finally, the swap is finalized to occur on the somewhat-obscure Glienicke Bridge in order to minimize press awareness of the event, although Pryor is to be released simultaneously at the famous American-zone-entry/departure gate, Checkpoint Charlie (when visiting Berlin a few years ago I was amused at this now-iconic-site where nearby there's a “Czech-Point” restaurant to satisfy your Eastern-European-appetite-needs) but the ongoing failure to deliver him ratchets up the final-scenes-tension considerably as Abel shows his support for all that Donovan has done for him by refusing to cross the mid-bridge-"line" in the snow until Pryor is finally delivered to his cross-town-destination, just as the Soviets are about to call the whole thing off.  Back home, Donovan’s sick (caught a cold in bitter Berlin February weather after the theft of his coat), exhausted (mentally and physically, to the point of barely greeting his family before going upstairs at his house to collapse onto his bed), yet triumphant as Mary warmly welcomes him back and strangers now smile at him on the subway when pictures of him are linked to the welcomed-release of the 2 American captives.

So What? Sicario ends on an appropriately-bitter-note as Silvio’s widow attends her son’s fútbol game, temporarily interrupted by gunfire somewhat close by before the match resumes in a tense environment where such distractions are merely a way of life.  In keeping with this intentional cynicism, Kate’s learned that despite surviving, she’s just a bit of emotional collateral damage in this off-the-books-war of illicit-shows-of-power, as the only reason she was recruited onto the border-crossing-team was to give domestic-joint-operation-justification when the activities spilled back onto U.S. soil, never because these macho guys felt she was capable of effectively being part of the action or even being able to be properly convinced/trained to do so (although she does land a solid punch on Matt when she realizes that Alejandro’s driven off to kill Fausto rather than help capture him as she assumed was the plan).  She was used, just as Guillermo, Silvio, and Díaz were, all just pawns to topple King Alarcón in an attempt to streamline the cartel infiltration of North America, not yet to eliminate it until someone can somehow put some controls on the desperate habits of a good bit of the U.S. population (as Alejandro tells Kate when she first starts to question him about their upcoming tasks, “You’re asking me how a watch works.  For now, just keep an eye on the time.”).  A grim story, indeed, but one well-told here, supported by exquisite cinematography of these barren landscapes, overcrowded cities, and immersion-inducing-visuals as when our team moves into the under-border-tunnel, with the images shown to us as the characters see them with night-vision-goggles that either turn all dark shapes into a low-definition-monochromatic-blackish-green in order to better see what’s highlighted by various illuminations or a black-and-white-negative-reversal that abstracts the location's actions, allowing the intruders (and us), an effective sense of the emotional distancing needed to help steel yourself against the sudden death that can easily result from a shooter blasting at you, seemingly out of nowhere.

 Bridge of Spies is a typical Spielbergian-cinematic-triumph—which means it’s not your typically-produced-film at all but rather a polished-masterwork of production design and execution where details of time and setting, smooth editing that blends the Abel and Powers stories, unanticipated cuts at times that help give deeper context to this very paranoid time in American history, occasional uses of humor to balance out the inherent grimness of the nationalist-conflicts that permeate the narrative, another Oscar-worthy-performance from Hanks well-supported by his colleagues (especially Rylance), along with the visual bleakness of the East German scenes where even the local leaders are as frosty as their snow-covered-streets, still angry over a decade later since the war’s end that their Russian overlords have left their section of Berlin in an atrocious shambles, in stark contrast to the fervent rebuilding that’s going on in the West-run-areas of the city.  (What was once East Berlin is now much more attractive and prosperous since the 1990 unification and the elimination of most sections of the wall—except those preserved for historical purposes—although you can still see how those decades of oppression and neglect in the Eastern section didn’t initially leave residents of that side of the city with as much to work with as their Western counterparts; overall, though, it’s amazing to see what a thriving metropolis Berlin is today, especially compared to the postcards you can easily buy depicting the piles of rubble that were the city’s norm in 1945 after the Allied invasions forced the Nazi surrender.)  While you need to see all of Bridge of Spies to appreciate its full context about the need to respect and maintain the intentions of the rule of law even in the face of the demands of national security (and understand that, as in Sicario, there are times when societal systems—and their component-governmental-ruling-structures—need some flexibility in responding to events and situations that just can’t always be adjudicated properly within the context of normal-Constitutional-expectations, with the burning questions remaining from both of these films about just how far we can go in stretching that pragmatically-needed-flexibility before we devolve into the kinds of criminals and criminal-states that these films “take arms” against), the final impact of Bridge of Spies can be sublimely-appreciated in the time-dislocated-juxtaposition of 2 scenes as Donovan rides a cross-town-train.

 In the first, he’s travelling back into West Berlin as he sees several people making a dash toward the wall in hopes of somehow scaling it into freedom yet they’re all brutally shot down by border guards charged with preventing any such escape; in the second, he’s finally back in NYC, feeling good about the successful-prisoner-swap, basking in the smiles of strangers on his subway ride (giving you the sense that Spielberg’s tendency toward the sentimentally-emotional is pushing Hanks into the over-sweetness of another box of chocolates to go with the ones he’s so famously connected with in Forrest Gump [Robert Zemeckis, 1994]) when he looks out the train's window during an elevated segment of the journey to see some kids running joyfully from one yard to the next, easily leaping over fences with no concern for being gunned down while in motion.  It’s a beautifully-poignant-moment that speaks to the blessing of taken-for-granted-freedom, a privilege in a world filled with dictators, both the overt ones that Donovan had to win over in this film’s second major challenge as well as the over-zealous-patriots that he had to confront in his own society eager to continue the vengeful “justice” that had condemned convicted spies (seemingly for leaking secrets to the Soviets about constructing atomic bombs) Julies and Ethel Rosenberg to electric-chair-death in 1953 (an event given brief mention in this film, enough to stir the passions of those who know about their situations, with after-the-fact-controversy especially about Ethel’s actual guilt as well as the functional worth of the material about bombs that Julius provided, although Donovan's convinced they're mere traitors worthy of the punishment they received).

Bottom Line Final Comments: While Sicario is certainly the more difficult film of this pair to watch because of the constant homicides that are sure to occur, the tension about whether other homicides will suddenly be sprung upon us, and the empathy we develop for Kate in her professional/personal-ambiguity-traumas about how unilateral actions done in the name of the spirit of the law have become necessary to add more substance to the intentions of the letter of that law, Bridge of Spies manages to constantly keep you on edge as well as to how James Donovan and those whom he attempts to defend/rescue will be able to survive the constant obstacles and dangers that threaten them, even though you can easily know the outcomes of his travails before you watch a frame of this film (another mark of Spielberg’s quality, how he’s able to keep us constantly enthralled with historical material—Schindler’s List [1993], Amistad [1997], Saving Private Ryan [1998] where specific characters are fictionalized but the overall situation is very accurate, especially the opening assault on Omaha Beach in 1944, Munich [2005], Lincoln [2012]—even when the history of the events being depicted is known fact).  Both of these cinematic triumphs present enormously-captivating-stories of soul-shaking-events driven by fascinating characters, where we have to acknowledge that the drug-driven-carnage in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest is a horrible reality that must somehow be tamed in anticipation of eventual elimination, as well as where we look back on our mid-20th-century-history to see how difficult it becomes to distinguish patriotism from xenophobia no matter which side of an ideological or concrete wall you’re on as what we condemn as the acts of heartless traitors merely parallels the very activities that we do ourselves against those we’ve learned to detest yet leaving us with hope that reasonable minds might find solutions to hidebound-challenges even as propagandistic-pronouncements on both sides continues to perpetuate the “wisdom” of the position that each chooses to support.

 (By the way, for a more lighthearted look at the 1950s than anything you’ll see in the harsh-but-based-on-fact-events of Bridge of Spies here’s an option for you provided by the increasingly-more-appropriate-second-Guy-in-the-Dark for this blog, Richard Parker of San Antonio, TX [Sorry, Pat, but your credibility’s still slowly slipping away here—although I do hope you’re beginning to recover from your knee surgery] called “Go ahead and jump,” in which you get celebrities of that time jumping [some fabulously, Lucille Ball; some not so much, the Duchess of Windsor] as they were photographed by Philippe Halsman in a project that ran from 1952 to 1958.  Be prepared, though, for advertising interruptions; when they happen, use the embedded arrows to the far left or right of the inner screen to move on to another photo, not the separate arrow on the far right that’ll take you to another topic entirely.  Speaking of other topics entirely, but somewhat relevant to Bridge of Spies, Google shows me that my pageviews are enormously high from Russia [1,886 vs. a measly 386 from the U.S. over the last week] which just shows that my readers there are psychic, already knowing that this posting would include a look at their history and its relationship to mine; right on, comrades, international partners!—So maybe we could all cooperate better in Syria, whaddya say?)

As I contemplated my usual use of Musical Metaphors to finalize these analyses of Sicario and Bridge of Spies I was first drawn to Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (which I know I’ve used before in some other context; I prefer to not repeat myself with these little musical enhancements to my meandering prose, but given the connections of this song to other unsavory aspects of Ciudad Juárez [an acknowledged aspect of its past, no matter what arguments one could make about improvements of today] I just couldn’t pass it up) so here’s a version of it at from some unknown concert but it must have been quite a big deal because I recognize Ron Wood and Eric Clapton up there on the stage with Bob; in my opinion, this delivery still allows you to actually understand what Dylan’s singing—not always my experience when attending his concerts in recent years—but if you’d like a version where the lyrics are even more evident then here’s the original one from the fabulous 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited, at with just the song in all of its sarcastic impact.  Moving on to Bridge of Spies, though, I’m drawn to another Dylan song, “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” (from the 1978 Street-Legal album) at https://www., a site that leads into a good many other Dylan tunes (both well-known and not-so-culturally-established ones) if you’re so in the mood to listen to some—or all—of them (but that might take you awhile, so check your calendars first).

 You could easily make the argument that this second Metaphor is also relevant to Sicario with its connotations of troubled travels into Mexico, but with its lyrics (which are available here if you’d like to contemplate them more carefully) of “do you know where we’re headin’? Lincoln County Road or Armageddon? Seems like I been down this way before Is there any truth in that, señor?,”  “I can smell the tail of the dragon Can’t stand the suspense anymore Can you tell me who to contact here, señor?,” and “Señor, señor, let’s disconnect these cables Overturn these tables This place don’t make sense to me no more Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?” I find just as much relevance for the events of Bridge of Spies (despite the shift from Latino-Anglo focus in the song to Slavic-Anglo conflicts in the film) where the ambitious principles of our 16th President (so well-explored by Spielberg in Lincoln [2012; review in our December 28, 2012 posting]) are contrasted to pragmatically-vital-efforts (seen as well in Lincoln as “honest” Abe horse-trades to the maximum in order to get enough Congressional votes to pass the Constitution's 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery) to avoid the road to nuclear Armageddon, with Donovan and his East German/ Russian counterparts trying to “disconnect the cables” of too-easily-fired weapons of mass destruction (back when we didn't actively use this potent phrase like we do now, even though it was in our political parlance as early as 1937 when Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, used it to refer to the Fascist bombing of Guernica, Spain) as tensions ran high over our overt aerial spying on the Soviet Union, as we tried to gain an advantage on our militaristic-country-swallowing-adversary.  For that matter, I’ll backtrack and note that you could also see (hear) aspects of the paranoidly-dangerous-world of Bridge of Spies in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” as the cynical attitudes that accompany the environment of spying and clandestine negotiations remind me easily of how "the cops don’t need you And man they expect the same,” with somewhat-out-of-his-depth-attorney-Donovan realizing all too soon that “Everybody said they’d stand behind me When the game got rough But the joke was on me There was nobody even there to call my bluff,” so he was desperate to be “going back to New York City” because “I do believe I’ve had enough.”

 You’ve probably had enough by now as well so I’ll just wrap this up with a very personal note of my sad acknowledgement of the death of my good friend and fellow film critic, Philip Wuntch, long the voice of very-well-informed-reason about movies at The Dallas Morning News, who left us on October 12, 2015 (obit here).  I met Philip when I was an Assistant Professor at Southern Methodist U. in Dallas back in the late 1970s because I was also a film critic for a local radio station (KTXQ-FM) and the cable TV station in SMU’s home community of University Park, a small city within the larger city.  We became good friends and colleagues, at one time attempting to write a comprehensive book on American genre film (which never came together as I just couldn’t get a publisher interested in it despite little competition in the market and futile attempts over the years to change that situation—I could wallpaper a room with all of the rejection letters—a reality that still exists today), auditioning to replace Siskel and Ebert when they moved on from PBS (we made the finalists but, obviously, weren’t chosen), and even working together briefly at SMU when he agreed to teach my American Genre Film class one semester (I was also peripherally-involved with introducing Philip to his beloved wife of many years, Mimi, but the full credit there goes to another mutual friend, Paula Barbier).  Philip was a marvelous writer, a witty conversationalist, and a dear friend; we hadn’t been in touch much, except recently on Facebook, since I moved to California in 1984, but he was the kind of guy you don’t forget even when time and distance intervene.  I encourage you to seek out his reviews (here’s a quick listing of some of them—636 but only back to year 2000—on Rotten Tomatoes, but unfortunately the links to the quotes don’t take you directly to the full reviews so you can try going to the general site they link to for The Dallas Morning News and try searching there but I didn’t have much luck in that endeavor, as their archives may not normally go back that far) because they’re a pleasure to read, even if you’ve never seen the films he’s discussing.  (The final irony here is that Barry Caine’s—remember him from the first paragraph, when you first started reading this a couple of days ago?—wife, Carol Christopher, also worked with Philip at the Dallas Morning News when she lived in Dallas many years back, so I thank her for passing on the news about our mutual friend, heart-breaking as it is for both Carol and me.)

This isn't Barry Caine but instead Tom Hanks, Steven
Spielberg (and some crew members)
, yet in terms
of cinema knowledge you can't tell them apart
 With Philip in mind, I’ll close with one more mention of another gifted wordsmith (still alive, I’m pleased to say—I’ll bet he is too) and explicator of the cinematic arts, again Barry Caine, who deserves thanks for not only inviting me to join him for the screening of Bridge of Spies but also—when I realized that I’d left my notepad at home when gathering up my junk for the train ride into San Francisco—for loaning me a really nice pen so that I could jot down my thoughts on the ride home (my usual strategy of using a small penlight isn’t acceptable at these critics’ screenings, while any attempts at taking notes by reflected light from the screen just doesn’t work for me unless I’m in the front row—not an ideal location for the size screen we were viewing at a commercial theater).  Unfortunately, the only paper we could find was a napkin so while I did fill it up with memorable moments from the film after I saw it my writing space was limited (as I printed carefully and larger than usual so as not to rip up my fragile medium); therefore, if you see Bridge of Spies later and find that I’ve left out something crucial please feel free to fill in the gaps in the Comments section far below.  Anyway, thanks again, Barry; by the way, when I finished with my notes I got a great offer for the pen so drinks on me next time I see you (just kidding; besides, he never reads this run-on-stuff from me anyway because it gives him eyestrain).
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Here’s more information about Sicario: (39:47 Q & A at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival with producers Molly Smith and Basil Iwantk [although they get no chance from the questioners to say much], cinematographer Roger Deakins, director Denis Villeneuve, and actors Josh Brolin, Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro)

Here’s more information about Bridge of Spies: (click the 3 small bars in the upper left of the screen to access various choices at this site) (10:30 interview with producer/director Spielberg, writer Matt Sharmon, production designer Adam Stockhausen, and costume designer Kasia Walicka Maintone [audio gets a bit low at times]) (91% positive rating based on just 43 reviews so check back later for possible change when more have been surveyed) (even more so here, the 78% positive rating when I posted my review was based on 20 others so I also advise checking back to see how this rating number may change over time)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Looking forward to Bridge of Spies on it's nationwide release date Friday. Seems someone is getting some early critic's screenings (unless perhaps you are lucky enough to live in a "selected city").

    Siskel and Ebert replacement audition? I always liked Gene Siskel's contributions to their PBS show, which I suspect would have been your role (the well dressed critic who usually provided argumentative countpoints to Roger Ebert [although Siskel was also Hugh Hefner's pal at the Chicago Playboy club at the time]). Any audition clips available?

    1. Caught Bridge of Spies today at the City Base 10, right across the street from the old Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. Excellent film, perhaps a new Speilberg classic and written by the Coen Brothers. What more could you ask for?

    2. Hi again, Couldn't agree with you more on all counts here. Thanks for noting the screenwriting by the Coens, which I meant to mention but forgot. Ken

    3. And again because when responding to your Oct. 16 comment I accidentally deleted the previous one so here it is again, hopefully properly reconstructed:

      Once in a while I get opportunities to go to critics' screenings but I realize that with all my spoilers a reader might need to wait awhile before indulging in my comments anyway. As for audition clips, sadly no; I might have had something on 3/4" decades ago but it's gone now.

      By the way, regarding S & E while I might be able to fake a version of Gene Siskel I doubt that you, me, Philip Wuntch, and Barry Caine all together could fill in for Roger Ebert based on ego alone back when he was on TV. I spent a little time with him (1981) when he riding high and full of himself, so I was impressed with his knowledge but not him so much, although based on what we see in the 2014 doc about him, Life Itself (here's my review), he became a more sharing, caring man after all of his medical problems (maybe before, I have no idea).

      By the way, here's one more story about negative reactions from some in Juarez about Sicario in a Time magazine article, to go along with the NY Times one I put in the above review. Ken

    4. OK, just one more entry in this never-ending-chain-of-comments so that I don't have to redo the one right above and put in those tedious links in HTML again (that's the way you have to do it in this section of the blog site, plus you can't edit after you publish a Comment or a Reply so you just have to delete and start all over again). Above, when I say "responding to your Oct. 16 comment" I should have said "Oct. 15". Are we good now? I damn sure hope so. Ken

  2. los movies - This movie is the slowest, most painful, piece of American propaganda & drivel that I have come across in recent memory. The characters are weak, inconsistent, and uninteresting. Scenes are intentionally drawn out to artificially build suspense but do nothing more than make you sit through 90 minutes of pointless footage to get at the meat of the story which amounts to a 30 minute short at best. Its attempts to somehow rationalize murder, torture, and vigilantism come off as propaganda for a failed US war on drugs. The only reason it gets more than 1 star from me is one of the later scenes which speaks some sense but has no connection to the rest of the narrative.

    I am incredibly disappointed in Emily Blunt for her abysmal choice of accepting this role. She makes women seem weak willed, immoral, smoke addicted waifs at the mercy of whatever men want of her. Truly shameful. This is coming from a man so I hate to think what women will think of this film.
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    1. Hi Megashare Movies, Sorry I’ve been so long in getting your comment published and replying to it, but there was some kind of glitch so I wasn’t even notified you’d sent it in. In the future, I’ll go into my Blogspot mailbox once a week to make sure I’m aware of any submitted comments. Obviously, we have completely different reactions to Sicario, but I thank you for your honest responses. Ken Burke