In a spirit of wild self-indulgence, Darleen and I watched two movies recently, two movies that both take place in the 1950s, both featuring some of the greatest talent alive today, both with breathtakingly beautiful and moody photography, and both ballyhooed as potential Oscar material. There the resemblance ends.
I normally make it a rule not to review any book or movie I don’t like. Why bother? It’s so very difficult to create anything, and after you’re done, it’s so very easy for any mean spirited fool with a wicked wit to tear down what you’ve created, and I don’t wish to be lumped into that smug, acid-tongued category. To quote the great Elizabeth Ashley (defending Tennessee Williams): “Sir, is it not the way of curs and mongrels always to chew on the tails of champions?” There are never enough champions, and always far too many curs and mongrels and I have no desire to swell their ranks.
But there are parallels here that bear scrutiny and the very thing that makes one of these movies so forgettable is the thing that makes the other so very unforgettable.
Carol is a lesbian love story starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. I was aware of who Miss Mara is, but I had never seen any of her work. As for Cate Blanchett, I have only seen a little of her work (Elizabeth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Bandits, Blue Jasmine) but enough to think Australia ought to declare her a national treasure, or that the American government should kidnap her and claim her as our national treasure. It doesn’t hurt that she has one of the most extraordinary faces ever to grace the screen, with eyes that hint at secrets you’ll never know, and that wonderful, mobile, tragic mouth.
So all in all, I was looking forward to Carol.
I was also looking forward very much to Bridge of Spies. It too stars national treasures: ours (Tom Hanks) and England’s (Mark Rylance) along with Amy Ryan and Alan Alda, neither of whom are exactly slouches in the talent department, and it was directed by Steven Spielberg who, it is generally conceded, has some talent himself in the directing department, to the tune of three Academy Awards. But primarily, I was looking forward to it because it deals with the famous Cold War incident where Francis Gary Powers and his U2 were shot down by the Soviets, and how Powers was eventually released in exchange for three Russian spies.
At least, that’s the story I grew up with, because my father helped catch one of those spies in a convoluted Cold War caper that penetrated even some of my five- or six-year old consciousness. (Men—FBI agents—sitting in front of old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorders set up in our basement; occasional odd incidents involving a Russian gentleman who came to our house, usually late at night, but who once made the mistake of letting himself in somehow during the day while we were out and who got pinned against the wall by our one-eyed Boxer for his pains, the Boxer who is in the photograph with me on my bio page; my father leaving alone at odd hours when normally he would play with us.) Alas, none of that is in the movie, and who knows now what the truth was then? Certainly not I.
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, as Kipling reminds us, and even more ways of telling stories on page or on screen, but the one inviolable rule is that while you may tease and tantalize your audience with mysteries of many kinds at the outset, you must, must, ultimately provide resolution. It’s Chekhov’s gun: if you mention (or show) a gun, you must then use it at some point, otherwise, why bother showing the damn thing in the first place?
Carol violates this rule, both figuratively and literally.
Figuratively, we are presented with two women, each in her different way trapped within a life she longs to escape, whose paths cross. And after that everything begins to fall apart. Why are these women trapped? Each of them is a stereotype of stifled, mid-fifties discontent; each longs for more than what life in that era is willing to allow them, but we are never given any backstory for their respective discontent. Rooney Mara longs to be a photographer, but what’s stopping her? Is it her own lack of any kind of color, any spark of divine fire? Is it her lesbian tendencies? Is it some other quantity or quality lacking within her? It sure as hell can’t be the American fifties themselves, as the film implies, because the arts were one of the few paths open to women back then. And while we are shown the problem, we are never shown the reason why she feels so trapped by her job and her boisterous boyfriend, or even given a clue why she can’t satisfy her artistic longings. Are they meant to be a symbol of her sexual longings?
Cate Blanchett is even more of a stereotype, albeit a colorful one: the woman trapped in a loveless marriage of wealthy convenience, who is torn between her love for her daughter and her longing for some kind of real love, which in this case means lesbian love. But what is behind that stereotype? What are the causes? What, other than lesbianism, sets her aside from ten thousand other women in that day and age? We are never given a clue or even anything specific enough about her to make her a unique individual.
Unfortunately, everything else in the movie contributes to the same sense of being shown stereotypes instead of real people. Cate Blanchett’s husband has appeared (more interestingly) in every John O’Hara, John Cheever, or John Updike short story. The daughter she adores is a generic child with no more individuality than a wooden clothing mannequin in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue. New York City, specifically Manhattan, the most majestic, most iconic, most metropolitan place on earth, is reduced to Anytown, USA. The wealthy suburb where Cate Blanchett and Kyle Chandler uneasily and alcoholically share a mansion becomes Anysuburb, USA. Even the beautiful, rich, productive land that lies between the Atlantic and central Iowa is wasted; we see little unsatisfying glimpses of it during long, silent driving sequences which could be filled with the beauty of the land outside and with information about the protagonists inside, information that would make both of these women come to life with individuality.
It’s not the performances; it’s Phyllis Nagy’s writing that is lacking in this film. She shows us two women who are intriguing and then fails to deliver on her promises, reducing them to stock symbols of societal repression devoid of individuality. Even when a chrome-plated Smith & Wesson with mother-of-pearl grips is carefully shown in Cate Blanchett’s suitcase, implying that at least now we will see something out of the ordinary, if not unique, there is no satisfying conclusive use of that revolver. It proves, like the film itself, to be empty, empty and lugubrious.
And the opposite is precisely what makes Bridge of Spies not merely a brilliant portrait of the exact same era, but one of those films where you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left. The Cohen brothers, Ethan and Joel, together with a young man (his photograph makes him look all of fourteen) named Matt Charman don’t waste an instant or a word: everything either drives the plot forward or establishes character.
A perfect example is a little scene where Tom Hanks is lost in the still war-torn streets of East Berlin and is suddenly surrounded by five or six young thugs who steal his overcoat. Hanks plays the real-life lawyer, James Donovan, who was recruited (bullied into?) defending a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) and then recruited (bullied into?) negotiating the trade of that spy for Francis Gary Powers. Hanks plays the scene as impeccably as he plays everything he has ever done, a courageous man in a bad situation, trying to stay alive, but instead of just handing them the overcoat, he negotiates, finally trading the coat for directions to the office building he has been looking for. That little scene, all by itself tells you all you need to know about James Donovan. Let’s put it this way: because of that scene, when I looked up James Donovan and found he had been later recruited (bullied into?) into negotiating the release of 1,113 prisoners of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn he came back with 9,703 men and women. I have a mental image of Fidel Castro throwing his hands in the air and saying, “Oh, for God’s sake! Give this guy whatever the hell he wants and get him out of here before he talks me into making Cuba another American state!”
It’s that kind of glimpse into a man’s personality that I would have loved to have seen in Carol. Even the photography, rich and moody in both films, becomes specific in Bridge of Spies. I was in Berlin back in those days. I’ve seen Checkpoint Charlie and I’ve seen if not those specific streets, certainly others just like them, and that’s what it was like back in the late fifties. The opening scenes in Brooklyn are precisely that: Brooklyn, and nowhere else on earth. Tom Hank’s James Donovan is unique and singular in all the world. Mark Rylance’s spy is so uniquely drab and colorless he becomes colorfully fascinating. James Donovan’s three children are specific and singular. And Amy Ryan has a moment at the end where she has just heard the news about what her husband has done, what he has accomplished for his country, and she stands in their bedroom looking at his exhausted sleeping figure on the bed, looking at the man who holds no more mystery for her than any man has ever held for his wife, and you can see the wonder, the pride, the love. That’s specificity. That’s what Carol lacks.