Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Fences

 SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed!

Fences (2016), written by acclaimed playwright August Wilson, and directed by Denzel Washington, uses the title of the story to convey various meanings. The main character, Troy Maxson (Washington), was an aspiring baseball player. (Could the name referencing the epic by Homer suggest Troy feels like the besieged city?) A batter in that sport “swings for the fences” in the hope of hitting a home run. That means the player exhibits the hope of accomplishment. Actual fences are barriers erected for physical safety, but they can also be psychological shields that protect an individual emotionally. They may imply the desire to prevent others from escaping the control of the of one in power. Wilson richly employs the metaphor in various ways.

The film takes place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the scene of many of Wilson’s plays. It begins in 1956. Troy is a trash collector, and he works with his friend, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). The two talk about Troy’s complaint that there are no Black trash truck drivers, and Blacks always have to haul the refuse into the vehicle. Troy sees it as a racial issue, which it is in general because of social deprivation. We later learn that specific to Troy’s situation, he can’t read and does not have a driver’s license.

The conversation turns to Troy having bought some drinks for a woman who is not his wife, Rose (Viola Davis, an Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress for this role). The character’s name reminds one of Spring, and rebirth, and she tries to get Troy to emerge from the dead past in which he likes to dwell. Bono implies that his friend is not just being polite, as Troy argues, when a man buys several drinks for a woman. Troy gets Bono to admit that he has never known Troy to cheat on his wife. However, no knowledge of a fact doesn’t make it untrue, as we subsequently discover.

They share a pint of whiskey (we find that Troy drinks too much, since Bono teases him about hogging the bottle). They engage is some crude sexual humor about a large woman from Florida. Troy says the woman’s girth “cushions the ride” like “Goodyear” tires. Even if that type of joke might be offensive to some, it fits the characters Wilson portrays. They are at Troy’s house and Rose comes out of the house and appropriately asks what they are “getting into.” She seems to have radar when it comes to her husband’s state of mind. She offers her own sense of humor. Troy says that when they first met, he told her he wanted to be her man, but didn’t want to get married. She said if he wasn’t the “marrying kind” then he should “move out of the way, so the marrying kind could find” her.  Bono shows the deprived plight of African American families when he talks about how difficult it used to be to get a home without an outhouse, and he thought indoor plumbing was reserved for white folks.

Troy is glad that his young son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), works at the supermarket because he is able to contribute cash to the family. Cory plays football in high school and Rose says a recruiter has approached him. Troy again says that race will be a factor, and Cory will not be allowed to play football because he is Black. He says that his boy should do something practical, like car maintenance, so he “can make a living.” Rose points out that Cory isn’t looking to make a career out of playing football; it’s just an “honor” to be recruited. Rose and Bono point out that things have changed and that there are many Blacks in professional sports now. Troy appears to be living in the past, and he has put a virtual fence that keeps out thoughts of exalted aspirations. He acts angry about prejudicial treatment, but feels nothing can be done about it. He implies one must give up on dreams and accept the unfair life that exists. It is at this point that we see where his anger derives. Troy was a very good baseball player, but he tried to rise up when he was too old, and failed to become a big leaguer. He will not admit he needed more time before attempting to become a baseball star. He is bitter about his failure to succeed.

Rose tells her husband that his excessive drinking will kill him. Troy says that Death visited him once when he had pneumonia, but he beat Death in a wrestling match. He personifies the loss of life so he can feel like he is in a contest between two men in which he can compete. He also talks about confronting the Devil, and Rose comments that anything that Troy doesn’t understand, he calls it the Devil. It’s as if Troy paints himself as a bigger-than-life Sisyphus-like character, constantly battling overpowering forces.


Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s older son from a prior relationship, arrives with his guitar. Troy sees him as another person who is not practical, only wanting to pursue his music. Lyons sees music as the reason for living; he says he needs a reason to exist, and music gives him that reason. Lyons asks for money, which is the only reason Troy says he is there. Lyons says his girl, Bonnie, is working and he’ll pay back the money. Troy says he can get Lyons a job picking up trash, but Lyons wants something better than that for his life. Many parents want their children to have jobs that are better than how they make a living. However, Troy represents those parents who feel their children look down upon the work that they do. Troy feels that he must carry the weight of dreamers on his labor-inflicted back, and thus, he begrudges the dreams of his offspring. He says that Lyons’s mother did a poor job of raising him. Lyons counters by saying that Troy was not around, so he doesn’t know how he was raised. He basically is indicting Troy’s hypocritical action since he talks about being responsible but abdicated his responsibility toward his son. Rose gets the complaining Troy to come up with the ten dollars Lyons asked for.

It's the weekend and Rose sings a hymn as she hangs laundry to dry. The words of the song ask Jesus to be a “fence” around her. Here is where the title of the story involves the wish for protection. Rose talks about playing the “numbers,” an illegal form of gambling before state-run lotteries came into being. Troy calls the betting foolish. He again expresses his contempt for seeking a dream-like impractical way to escape the plight of the deprived.

Troy continues this rant by saying Cory wanted to escape working on a fence on his property by going to football practice. Here, the fence could be a metaphor for Troy trying to keep his son from escaping Troy’s control over him, and thus, depriving Cory the luxury of holding onto his aspirations. Rose tells her husband that he’s “off,” complaining about everything. She takes the saying about getting up on the wrong side of bed and wittily refreshes it by telling Troy to go back to bed and get up on the other side.

Troy’s brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) walks down the street yelling about selling plums that he does not have. He acts child-like, and it is obvious that he has mental deficits which we learn was due to receiving a serious head injury in the military. Despite his impairment, Gabe has religious visions about hellhounds, St. Peter, and Judgment Day. It’s as if he is an uncomplicated vessel that carries a divine message about the evils around him and urges preparation for the apocalypse to come (perhaps that is why he has the name of the angel Gabriel who. with his trumpet. announces God’s wishes). He wanders off urging others to get ready for God’s arrival. He recently moved out of Troy’s house and Gabe says that he wanted to get out of Troy’s way. Gabe is a gentle soul in contrast to his brother, and appears intimidated by Troy, wondering if his brother is angry with him. Gabe received $3,000 when he left the service and Troy used that money to buy his house. So, despite Troy talking about having to earn one’s own way, he used his brother’s disability to get what Troy wanted. Troy did take care of his brother until he moved out. Troy expresses regret and anger that life is so unfair that the only way he could have his own place was because of his brother’s life-threatening injury.

Troy says he is going to work on the fence, but he goes to the local tavern and comes back drunk. He says he is going to fix things around the house but escapes into his drinking instead. At the same time that he rants about Cory not doing his chores, the boy is actually home ready to take care of his responsibilities. Troy is always on the offensive about the way he sees the world vexing him. What follows is a universal exchange between the self-indulgent but life-enjoying child and the practical adult. Cory says his father should buy a TV. Troy points out that the money that would buy a TV must go to fixing the roof. Troy humorously says what good is the TV if the roof leaks water onto Cory’s brand-new television.

As the two work on the wood for the fence, Cory talks about the Pittsburgh Pirates. Troy, always wearing that chip on his shoulder, says that Roberto Clemente isn’t allowed to play all the time because he is a man of color. Cory corrects his father’s limited perspective by telling him Clemente plays a great deal. Troy adds that the baseball leagues play mediocre white men while Black players must be great to get a chance. Cory, trying to add fairness to the argument, mentions exceptional white and Black ballplayers, including Hank Aaron. Troy dismisses the great Aaron by saying any player can do well once he gets his timing, and says that Troy had hits off the great Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige. Troy appears to need to compensate for a lack of success by knocking down the accomplishments of others.

From baseball the two move on to Cory’s football aspirations, of which Troy again says his son has unachievable dreams. Cory quit his weekday job at the grocery store, but will continue to work weekends. The owner will hold his job until after the football season. Cory can go to college because of his football abilities and good grades. That’s not enough for Troy, who still views his boy’s hopes as a longshot because Troy interprets his failure at sports as being due to a continuing systemic racist system that will also affect Cory. He demands that Cory try to get his job back, or find a new one, and give up his dream of playing college sports. Troy tells his son to learn a trade so he will not have to haul trash like his dad. He wants his son to succeed, but in a pragmatic sense.

A dejected Cory, trying to comprehend why his father is denying him a chance at happiness, asks if Troy likes him. Troy reduces even family relationships to practical transactions. He says there is no “law” that says he must like Cory. He has a duty to take care of him because he is his son. He said having him did not include in the bargain liking him. He tells a now seething Cory that his son should stop worrying about being liked and focus on who “is doin’ right by you.” Troy’s reducing family relationships to a pragmatic contract involving duties not only leaves no room for liking someone but also excludes love, the real glue that binds a family together.

Rose again tries to break through the “fence” of Troy’s self-delusion that the only reason that he didn’t succeed in sports was because of racism, and not his age. She tries to tell him that he is enclosed himself in the bitterness of the past and doesn’t want to see that things have changed, implying that there are more opportunities in sports for African Americans at the time the story takes place.

Instead of getting fired for complaining about there being no Black truck drivers, Troy instead becomes the first African American trash truck driver (despite having no license). He celebrates with Bono and Troy tells Rose the good news. That’s one instance of Troy being wrong about how he sees the world. Immediately after that, there is a second example. Lyons arrives and wants to pay him back the ten dollars he borrowed. Instead of acknowledging his son’s responsible action, he tells him to hold onto the money for the next time he needs a handout instead of coming to his father. Troy assumes his son will continue to be a burden instead of admitting that maybe things can change.

Gabe shows up with more announcements about Armageddon and the Devil, who Troy says he did battle with. Gabe calls Lyons, because of his name, the king of the jungle and they both growl. However, for Troy, his musician son is no force of nature. Outside, Troy (drinking again) says his father cared about himself first and his eleven children came afterwards. He did stick around when others left their responsibilities behind. Still, Troy says his dad was “evil,” as he tried to take advantage of Troy’s girlfriend after beating Troy. It was his mother who left the family because of the father’s ways. Yet, he understood his father, saying his dad was caught in a trap, working at picking cotton and having many mouths to feed. Troy sees life as a trap. Troy ran away from home at age fourteen and turned to robbing people to get by. He was in a confrontation with a man who shot him. Troy killed the man and was in prison for fifteen years. That time in prison is the reason why Troy started his baseball career too late. One can understand that Troy suffered traumatic experiences that contributed to his view of how harsh life is. His stories about the old times along with those of his old friend, Bono, affirm what Rose says about him being ensnared in the past.

Lyons invites his father to hear him play but Troy refuses. He can’t find it himself to take pride in his son’s impractical artistic nature because he perceives Lyons as just another weight he must carry. Cory comes home angry and throws his helmet which bounces off the house porch. Cory says Troy told the coach he can’t play football anymore. Cory says something that hits at the core of his father’s mindset when he says that his father is jealous of his son succeeding when Troy couldn’t. In Troy’s mind, his son can get a good job if he works hard, but he will not accept the possibility that his son could hit the occupational lottery when Troy couldn’t. Troy uses a baseball metaphor when he says that the thrown helmet was “strike one” because it missed Troy. He warns his son that he better not “strike out.” He is threatening Cory with physical violence at this point.

The next day Cory practices hitting a baseball hanging from a rope on a tree with a bat. He tells Rose he will not quit football. Is he metaphorically making sure he will not strike out against his father, the seasoned ballplayer? Bona says that Troy is paying too much attention to another woman. As Cory helps Troy and Bono saw wood for the fence, Bono, referring to what he said about the other woman, announces the central theme of the story when he says, “Some build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold onto you all.” The implication is that Troy is divisive, and Rose works as a force to balance Troy’s ways, so her song to God is echoed here where a fence is symbolic of protection.

Bono takes Troy aside and tells him he has learned a great deal from Troy and he knows whether or not someone’s telling the truth. He says that he doesn’t want to see Rose hurt. Troy here admits to his extramarital affair and says that he can’t shake this other woman loose. Troy is breaking his marital vows, and Bono reminds his friend that he should practice what he preaches about accepting responsibility.


After what Bono said, Troy is feeling guilty and he decides to confess to Rose. But there is more to the story than what Bono knows; he tells Rose he is going to be a “daddy” again. Rose gets hit with both barrels at once concerning Troy’s infidelity. Rose almost falls to the floor from the emotional wounds that Troy has inflicted on her. She runs outside toward the existing metal fence, as if trying to flee the barrier that she thought protected her. She drops the rose that Gabriel gave her, possibly signifying the relinquishing of hope for the future that her name suggested. He tries to defend himself by using extensive baseball metaphors, using the tools he knows. He says that he was born with two strikes against him, most likely being Black and poor. However, he avoided that third strike by getting married, having a family and a job. But, he says the other woman gives him an escape from the pressure of his work and family responsibilities, and he says he can’t give up that feeling of freedom. Rose says that it’s her job to alive pressure, and he shouldn’t be looking for someone outside the family. In baseball language, that would mean the relief pitcher should be someone on the same team. He says that he feels like he has been standing still. Her angry response is, “Well, I’ve been standing with you!” She has been supporting him and has given up moving on by committing to her life with Troy. Just like his boys, Troy has tried to kill Rose’s wants and dreams. She says she buried her desires “inside” her husband, hoping happiness would grow there, but she found she planted her hopes on rocky soil. She calls him out on his selfishness since he always talks about what he has sacrificed and forgets how much he has taken, most likely implying how much he has deprived her of her wishes. He becomes angry about being accused of taking and not giving back, and grabs Rose’s arm. As she cries out that he is hurting her, Cory comes outside and slams Troy into the fence, threatening that barrier of authority between father and son. Troy says that Cory now has two strikes against him, and he implies there will be violent retribution against his son if he gets that third strike.

We get a montage of images that show time passing as the weather turns cold with snow falling. Troy continues to build the fence alone; Cory works out in the basement as he keeps his dream alive of playing football; Rose seeks refuge in the embrace of fellow females at her church; Gabriel visits the grave of his mother who died young. The family members are isolated from each other. At least until Rose shows up at Troy’s workplace and tells her husband they must talk. He says it's been six months since she hasn’t wanted to have a conversation with him. She wants him to come straight home after work, implying he should not visit his lady friend, Alberta. After some evading, Troy says he just wants to stop at the hospital because Alberta may be having the baby early. Rose’s face reflects her anguish and criticizes Troy for signing papers that would send Gabriel to an institution (something he said he wouldn’t do) and would award him half of his brother’s disability check. Yet, he would not sign the agreement to have Cory play football at a college. Troy can’t read, so it’s possible he is truthful when he says he didn’t know anything about what Rose reports, which again stresses how his lack of an education has hindered him. Most likely out of guilt Troy feeds his brother at the asylum, like a nurturing father giving food to a baby.

Rose answers the phone in the middle of the night. She reports to Troy that Alberta gave birth to a girl, but she died during childbirth. When Rose asks about what’s to be done next, Troy reverts to his usual complaint about being burdened by life. After Rose leaves him alone, Troy rants at Death, saying he’s going to finish the fence, to keep Death at a safe distance until it’s his time, and then they will battle. He tells Death not to come at him through others, like Alberta. We again have a mythological level to the tale, as Troy addresses primal forces. It is as if he is delivering a dramatic soliloquy, like Shakespeare’s King Lear. However, Troy’s speech shows how he is an egotist, as if everything revolves around him.

The next scene has Troy coming home with his infant daughter. He tells Rose she is an innocent child with no mother. He is asking for help to raise her, but the suffering Rose says there is no point telling her that. He goes outside and is quietly defiant saying to the baby he is not sorry for what he has done because he felt his actions were right for him. He says he was homeless before, but not with a baby. Rose hears Troy basically saying that he will have to care for his child outside of his home. Davis shows Rose’s anguish just from her back as she drops what she is holding into the sink and stretches her arms as if to support her emotional heaviness. Troy now comes straight out and asks that Rose help take care of the baby. Rose agrees, because she knows that the child is innocent, and should not inherit the sins of the father. Rose has always valued the other family members above her own needs. She says his daughter is no longer motherless, but he is womanless, stressing that she has not forgiven his sins against her.

A short time has passed as Troy comes home to find Cory leave the yard as soon as he sees his father. Rose leaves to bring a cake to the church and left Troy some dinner. He goes to the local bar and talks to Bono who he hasn’t seen for a while because Troy is now driving in a white neighborhood. Troy is losing his family and his friend due to his actions. He sings about his dead dog, again seeking solace in the past. Cory stops at a Marine recruiting office, so we know Troy has lost his son even though he tried to keep him inside his fence.

When Cory comes home the drunken Troy blocks his entrance, and Cory refuses to say, “Excuse me,” because he says his father, due to his actions, doesn’t count anymore. Troy then reverts to the same list of material things he has given his son, but Cory states how his father only made him fear him, and was never supportive. They have a physical confrontation, with Troy overpowering Cory, and taking the baseball bat away from him. Troy comes close to choking and slugging his son. He kicks Cory out of his house, which Cory reminds him is not really his since Gabriel paid for it. Troy says Cory’s belongs will be on the other side of the fence, which emphasizes how Troy’s world is shrinking as he alienates everyone around him. But Troy is defiant in his emptiness, swinging his baseball bat, invoking Death again, saying he is ready to fight the Grim Reaper. He is ready for death as an escape now, but he will still deal with his demise as he has lived his life, kicking and screaming.

The next scene takes place several years later, and Troy’s daughter, Raynell (Saniyya Sidney - Could her name suggest a “ray” of sunshine and the hope for a better future?), is a youngster taking care of a garden outside. The greenery may represent the influence of Rose, the person with the regenerative name. Bono is there with Lyons. They are dressed up in black, as is Rose. We know they are going to Troy’s funeral. Cory shows up looking impressive in his Marine uniform, wearing a corporal’s stripes, and has been in the service for six years. He has been away since his father kicked him out, since Raynell doesn’t know that he is her half-brother. Lyons tells Cory that he is finishing up a three-year prison sentence for cashing other people’s checks (his father was a thief when he was young), and the penitentiary let him out for his dad’s funeral. He reminds the bitter Cory that Troy used to say, “you got to take the crookeds with the straights.” He recounts how his father would strike out and then hit the ball out of the stadium, and after the game two hundred people wanted to shake his hand. Despite his shortcomings, Lyons is saying that Troy was a force of nature. Lyons still plays music, keeping what feeds him emotionally in his life. Troy’s sons may not have played baseball, but they played music and football, and refuse to give into defeat.

In the kitchen are pictures of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus, individuals that inspire and keep Rose going. She tells Cory outside that Troy was swinging his bat at the ball tied to the tree when he fell over and died. He went down swinging, as he said he would when Death came for him. Cory tells Rose that he has to say “no” to his father just once and will not go to the funeral. Rose is outraged and says that is not how she brought him up, and he must put his animosity aside. She says her words with the baseball hanging between them and the fence Troy built in the background. These images show how Troy’s legacy of placing boundaries between people continues to divide lives despite Rose’s wish to bring the family together.

Cory says that his father was like a “shadow,” suggesting it was like a black plague that infested his life. Rose says that Cory can’t escape his father’s influence, but he must deal with it. Troy was a man of contradictions, but she believes he wanted to do more good than harm. Her words show that conflict between wanting to help but not knowing how to deliver it. She says that sometimes when he touched someone, he “bruised” them, and when he held her, she might feel him “cut” her, both in an emotional sense. He most likely wanted Cory to be far from what Troy was in his failures, but also to be like him in his strength.

She says that Troy was a bigger than life character who filled up the house and all the “empty” spaces in her. But, she admits that didn’t leave much room for her own individuality to thrive. She does take responsibility for choosing Troy, and she has turned the negative events that brought Raynell into the world into a positive. The girl is a symbol of rebirth, giving Rose a new energy, which refueled Rose, who is a life force herself.

Raynell and Cory sing Troy’s song about his dog, Blue. After they are done, she hugs him. The institution let Gabriel out for the funeral of his brother, and he shows up with a trumpet, living up to the angel whose name he carries. He blows one clear note, and the sun shines through the clouds, which Gabriel takes as opening the gates of heaven for Troy. Raynell holds Gabriel’s hand. Troy’s child is able to accomplish what he couldn’t do in life, which is to bring the family together.

The next film is Stand by Me.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Recent Streaming Shows

 SPOILER ALERT! The plots will be discussed!

I thought I would provide some brief comments on shows that have turned up recently on streaming service.



The Good Nurse (Netflix)

This movie tells the story of Charles Edmund Cullen, a nurse who moved from hospital to hospital, murdering as many as four hundred patients, according to Eddie Redmayne, who plays Cullen, in an interview with Stephen Colbert. As is the case of many serial killers, he is a white male who seems harmless on the surface. He gets a job at the hospital where Amy Loughren (Jessica Chastain) works, who is the actual good nurse of the title, as opposed to the phony admirable nurse, Cullen. Even Amy, who is a single parent with a heart condition that requires a transplant, lets her guard down when Cullen is supportive of her. He keeps secret her condition so she can work long enough to get health insurance coverage for the transplant. He even helps her with taking care of her daughter, Maya (Devyn McDowell).

Redmayne is effective in presenting this complex character who genuinely seems to care about Loughren and Maya. He only reveals his anger once, in a confrontation with Loughren in a diner, which hints at the monster below the seemingly pleasant surface. Chastain is very good at showing the ailing nurse who can be vulnerable emotionally but also morally upstanding when she needs to be.

The film reveals the astonishing way that the medical system enabled Cullen to commit his crimes. Once personnel at his prior workplaces suspected he was doing away with patients, they didn’t want to be exposed as liable for hiring him and not discovering his homicidal tendencies sooner. They, like the Catholic Church concerning pedophiles, simply allowed him to transfer to other sites where he could continue his horrific acts. The medical institutions, too, presented a phony fa├žade and the movie implies they were guilty as accessories, which, however, would be difficult to prove in a court of law without definitive evidence of the knowledge of his crimes.

It is Loughren who is the honest one, who, when she suspects, after talking with other people, that her new friend, Cullen, is culpable, helps the police eventually apprehend him. During her collaboration with the police officers, she puts herself and her child in possible danger if Cullen found out about her aiding the authorities. There is a brief exchange between Loughren and Cullen which illustrates how he was able to get away with the killings. She asks him, “Why?” he did what he did, and he says, “They didn’t stop me.”

 


The Watcher (Netflix)

Ryan Murphy, the creator of this limited series, is not known for his subtlety. Anyone who has endured his shows, such as American Horror Story or Ratched, knows he loves to shock, albeit with some style and dark humor. However, The Watcher may be one of his most restrained projects. The series is loosely based on a true story about a couple who bought a stately home in the suburbs and then started receiving threatening letters from someone who spied upon them.

In the show, the relocating couple are Dean and Nora Brannock (played by Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts, respectively). They have moved to the supposedly safe suburbs to escape the dangers of New York City. The irony is that the pastoral metropolitan outskirts turn out to be pretty scary. The performances of Mia Farrow, Terry Kinney (whose Jasper likes to get inside the Brannock house to ride their dumbwaiter), Margo Martindale, and Richard Kind as the weird neighbors who do not like the invading Brannocks, are weirdly funny. Dean is not a likable character since he is a deceptive person who hides his actions from Nora. The hostile and overbearing way he deals with others is disturbing. Watts does what she can with a character that is not well developed.

The show is suspenseful, and it introduces several characters who could be the watcher. It is another story where what appears on the surface is misleading. If you like a tidy ending that wraps everything up with a conclusive bow, this show is not for you.

 


Bad Sisters (Apple+)

Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) developed this limited series, and stars as one of those bad sisters, Eva Garvey. This dark comedy/drama begins with the death of the husband of one of the sisters. The husband is John Paul (Claes Bang who brilliantly creates the character), who the sisters, except for his wife, call “The Prick.” That is an understatement. He is a vile person, who manipulates everyone and thrives on humiliating all the sisters and in the case of one sister causes her to lose an eye in a car accident. Other atrocities become apparent along the way until the end of the series. Like some politicians, he is always the victim and never accepts any responsibility for his harmful actions.

We know from the outset that the sisters are worried that they may be exposed as being responsible for John Paul’s death (his name seems to suggest the demonic version of a pope). All the sisters have reason to want the man dead. The brothers who run the secretly bankrupt life insurance company that covered John Paul investigate to show that foul play was involved. The story holds our interest, as in The Watcher, since it keeps shifting as to whom is responsible for the murder. The writing is witty, and the acting is superb in carving out the personalities of the various characters. The show implicates the audience, the way Alfred Hitchcock does in his movies, as we identify with the sisters, and become passive co-conspirators, wanting their plans for murder to be successful. As in the very serious film, Gone Baby Gone, the question here arises as to whether doing a criminal act supersedes what the law dictates when the legal system is powerless to deliver justice. The show raises the question as to whether these sisters are really “bad?”

 


The Patient (Hulu)

If there was any doubt that Steve Carell can perform in a dramatic role, this limited series makes that doubt rest in peace. Carell is excellent as psychiatrist Alan Strauss whose patient, Sam Fortner (Domhnall Gleeson in another terrific performance), turns out to be a reluctant serial killer. Fortner’s daddy issues (his father beat him repeatedly as a child) created lethal anger in Fortner toward anyone who appeared to be dismissive of him. His method of death is strangulation, which is appropriate since Fortner is stopping his condescending victim from spouting out any negativity toward him.

Strauss learns that his patient is dangerous when he awakes and realizes that Fortner kidnapped him. His patient has chained one of Strauss’s legs to a bed in the lower level of Fortner’s remote house. Fortner’s mother, Candace (Linda Edmond), lives there and she is guilty of having allowed her husband to abuse her son, and she has compounded that culpability by enabling her boy to inflict his deadly anger on others. Fortner wants to be Strauss’s only patient so the psychiatrist can cure him of his compulsion to kill. Unlike most serial killers who feel no guilt about their actions, Fortner wants to stop his deluded anger from driving him to more murders. But, he sets up a situation that shows no feeling for the threatening position in which he has placed his therapist.

Strauss appears calm and professional in Fortner’s presence, but secretly suffers in fear. He undergoes self-therapy as he has imaginary conversations with his psychiatric mentor. He experiences nightmares that emotionally connect his imprisonment to his Jewish heritage as he envisions inmates in the Nazi concentration camps. The show depicts his regret over his contentious relationship with his Jewish Orthodox son.

Fortner continues to kill until he has a breakthrough when confronting his father. But Strauss, who is at his wits end, concludes he can’t endure the situation any longer. The ending is interesting, but I believe it could have gone in several directions. If you have watched, or will watch this series, maybe ask yourself how you would have concluded this tale.

The next film is Fences.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Bridge of Spies

 SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed!

In Bridge of Spies (2015), director Steven Spielberg, with the help of the Coen brothers who worked on the script, presents a story based on true events that explores how the fervor of patriotism and fear can sometimes overshadow objectivity regarding individual actions and the pursuit of justice. This movie, as others by Spielberg (E. T. – The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to name a few) focuses on ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

The story begins in 1957 and revolves around the capture of a Russian spy and the United States U2 spy airplane piloted by Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) that was shot down during the Cold War. The first shot is that of Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance, Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor for this performance). He is painting a self-portrait as he looks at himself in a mirror. As has been noted previously in this blog, mirrors symbolize the “other,” or alter ego of people. The painting shows a different version of Abel, looking less polished both in his face and clothes, the person under the disguise. Abel is pretending to be a law-abiding resident in Brooklyn while spying for the Soviet Union.

The opening sequence shows Abel is already under surveillance by American authorities. He paints in the park and finds an America coin that was planted under a bench. He pries the phony object open when he returns to his apartment. There is a message inside. It is a wonderful ironic symbol since it uses the currency of a capitalist nation on the surface to hide the Communist efforts to undermine that monetary system inside.

FBI agents burst into the apartment while Abel is in his underwear in the bathroom. Despite the fact that authorities caught him in a vulnerable situation, he is incredibly calm as he says, “Visitors.” He professes not knowing why they call him “Colonel,” and he asks simply for his false teeth (“false” being the operative word here for Abel’s fake presentation). He asks meekly to be allowed to clean his painter’s palette. He deceptively grasps the message from the coin as he wipes the paint and while the agents search his place.

The focus shifts to James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who is an insurance lawyer. He argues with the attorney of five individuals who were hit by a car covered by the insurance company. The suing lawyer, Bates (Joshua Harto), argues that since there were five injuries there are five claims because five events occurred. Donovan says it’s only one accident and the liability is limited to “one” event. He says that if a tornado rips apart a house it is the whole house that the insurance company covers, not each separate piece of wood. Otherwise, there is “never any limit to … liability.” That would put an end to the insurance business and then “nobody is safe.” The scene shows Donovan’s insistence on precise language and definitions. The stress on “one” transaction here ties in with later events.

At the law office, Donovan’s partner, Thomas Watters, Jr. (Alan Alda) has Donovan meet an acquaintance from the Bar Association, Lynn Goodnough (John Rue) in private. Goodnough wants Donovan to defend Abel. Donovan helped prosecute war criminals years earlier at Nuremberg, Germany. IMDb also notes that Donovan worked as general counsel for the U. S. military intelligence, so he had experience with spies and war crimes. Goodnough says that it’s important that Abel get a fair trial since the American legal system will show itself to be legitimate. Goodnough agrees that the American people hate Abel for being a Soviet spy and that Donovan most likely will be “reviled” for representing him. In addition, the evidence is “overwhelming” that Abel is a foreign agent. With dark humor, Donovan acknowledges the no-win situation when he says, “Everyone will hate me but at least I’ll lose.” Watters tells Donovan it’s his “patriotic duty” to “defend the son-of-a-bitch.” His conflicting statement reflects what is the right thing to do despite one’s personal feelings.

At home, Donovan’s wife, Mary (Amy Ryan), is against her husband representing Abel because she sees him as a threat to the country which is on high alert at the height of the Cold War. She calls Abel a “traitor.” Again, words are important to Donovan. He points out that the Rosenbergs were traitors because they were Americans and gave secrets to the enemy. Abel is not an American so the classification wouldn’t fit as he was working loyally for his own country, even though Russia was the enemy of the United States.

Donovan meets with Abel and makes clear that he does not work for the CIA or any part of the U. S. Government. He works for Abel. Abel says that he was offered to work as a double agent, but he refused to be a spy against his country for the United States. As Donovan says most Americans would like to see him go to the electric chair, but Donovan is there to ensure that there is a proper handling of the law. Donovan says one of the charges is that Abel didn’t register as an agent of a foreign government. Abel’s humor remains intact when he asks do many foreign agents register. It is of course a ridiculous requirement to have a spy from another country announce his purpose. Given the extreme nature of Abel’s potential punishment, Donovan notes that Abel does not “seem alarmed.” Abel’s response is, “Would it help?” I have often repeated that line when I find myself worrying about something. It may be difficult to react as Abel does, but he is right that being alarmed does not help the situation in any way. This first conversation has Abel asking for some drawing materials and cigarettes. Donovan says at first it’s not possible. Abel then says that America has spies doing the same for the U. S. and if they were caught Abel is sure Donovan would want them treated well.

There is a perfect cut to the situation Abel refers to. We see Powers along with others receiving top secret orders to spy on Soviet nuclear capabilities. So, the film says that it depends on your perspective as to who is the hero and who is the villain. In a way, Abel does surveillance on the ground of his enemy’s land while Powers does it from the sky. From a distance it is easy to place individuals into stereotyped categories. Once a person gets to know another, that set of criteria may change. As Spielberg said, “everyone you think should be wearing a black hat isn’t necessarily wearing that hat … how could we possibly come out caring about this person in the least? But in this case, we do.”

The bias that Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) has against Abel is evident in the first pre-trial meeting Donovan attends. Byers basically says there will be a pretense to due process under the law, but that Abel should be convicted. Byers considers Donovan’s plea for a continuance that would delay the inevitable guilty verdict a ridiculous request.

After the meeting, Donovan can’t get a cab. It is night and raining, which adds a sinister quality to the scene. A man follows Donovan. He turns out to be CIA Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), who, after they go into a bar, attempts to acquire from Donovan what Abel tells the attorney. Hoffman scoffs at attorney-client privilege and says there is “no rule book here” given the circumstances. Donovan says he is Irish and Hoffman admits he is of German heritage, but the “one” (that number again) thing that makes them Americans is the adherence to the “rule book,” the Constitution. Donovan is angry at this point with the ease with which Byers and Hoffman dispense with legal safeguards. There is an intimidating force behind Hoffman’s question to Donovan when the CIA agent says, “Do we have to worry about you?” The irony here is that Donovan feels threatened by his own government for doing his job according to the law that is supposed to protect democratic principles.

Donovan looks at the evidence acquired from Abel’s belongings, but there was no search warrant for the items the FBI acquired. He points out to the judge that even though Abel is not a U. S citizen, due process still applies, and the evidence should not be used. The judge doesn’t seem to care about the letter of the law and says that given the Cold War he denies Donovan’s motion. The film shows that the judge’s decision isn’t an interpretation of the law but simply a dismissal of it, which is a dangerous act.  He justifies his actions later by saying there are “bigger issues” at stake. Donovan says to Abel that he is not a U. S. citizen, but his “boss” says he’s not a Soviet citizen either, since Russia is not going to acknowledge that it had a spy in America. Abel again uses his humor despite his dire situation. He says, “Well, the boss isn’t always right. But he’s always the boss.” His remarks apply to the judge, too, which means both countries can be wrong but those in power can ignore the truth.

There is a nice cut to students making the “Pledge of Allegiance,” which states there should be “liberty and justice for all.” This story shows that provision doesn’t always apply. Then there are school children in tears as they watch a film showing the devastation that a nuclear blast can inflict, which can sway people away from that “justice for all” belief. The government gave out false hope that people could withstand the blast by following the “duck and cover,” action, and filling bathtubs and basins with water if the utilities are not functioning. Donovan’s son, Roger (Noah Schnapp), is in his bathroom preparing for the water shortage and tells his father about how their house will be in the blast zone. Donovan tries to calm his boy by saying that no attack is imminent. Apprehension causes even his own son to question why he is defending a spy who could help make the Soviet attack possible. Donovan saying he is doing his job is not sufficient for Roger, as he, like the judge, is willing to dismiss the rules when fear is present. That negative attitude carries over into the population at large as people recognize Donovan from his picture in the newspapers showing he is representing Abel.

Donovan gives Abel a drawing he left in the courtroom and discovers from Abel that his wife plays the harp in a Russian orchestra. Abel also tells a story about how his parents were beaten. Abel’s humor, unwillingness to give into fear, and the facts about his family make him a human being, not a stereotype for Donovan. Abel says that there was a friend of his father who suffered repeated beatings but still stood up. Those inflicting the pain gave up and called him, “standing man.” Abel sees in Donovan that same type of resilience.

The movie does not depict the trial since that is not the focus of the story. The jury finds Abel guilty, despite the illegally acquired evidence. He is, in fact, guilty of espionage. Donovan tells Abel that the death sentence isn’t a lock. Donovan goes to the judge’s house who is preparing for a March of Dimes event to combat polio. The judge is not without his humanitarian interests. Donovan makes a practical argument by stressing his insurance background and says that Abel should be kept alive in case an American is captured doing the same act, spying for his country. Then a trade could be made, which is what the rest of the film depicts.

Donovan’s insurance argument works as the judge sentences Abel to thirty years imprisonment. There is an outcry in the courtroom as people yell for Abel’s death. There is a massive number of reporters taking Donovan’s picture as he exits the courthouse. His wife is frightened by the outcry and Donovan’s partner, Watters, says that Donovan has done his job showing that Abel received a decent defense. If Donovan pursues an appeal, although legally sound, it is not, as Mary says, worth the “cost” to his family and the firm. Again, the environment of fear surrounding the Cold War threatens the letter of the law. Even Abel warns Donovan that he should be “careful” about what can happen to him in an atmosphere of hate as he tries to follow the lawful path.

Abel and the warnings of his wife and partner come to fruition as shots are fired into the Donovan house. The neighbors shout intimidating remarks and even a police officer is confrontational telling Donovan that he shouldn’t be defending Abel. Donovan, the “standing man,” is not one to back down, and stands his ground (Tom Petty reference intentional) as he says that he did his patriotic duty by serving in the military and the policeman should now do his job (which is what Donovan has been stating he is doing).

There is a switch to instructions that the U2 pilots receive. They are told that their mission is secret, and they must not let the plane fall into enemy hands. There is a self-destruct mechanism on the aircraft, and they must go down with the plane. If they think they will be captured, they will have a dollar coin with a lethal poison on a pin inserted in the currency which they are to use. Agent Williams (Michael Gaston) says, “spend the dollar.” It is interesting that we have a second reference to American money, and by extension its capitalist system, that has hidden action attached to it: with Abel, it is to discover the military secrets of the United States; with the U2 pilots, it is to protect those secrets.

We have a series of cuts between the pilots preparing for their spy flights and Donovan getting ready to make his case by citing the Constitution in front of the Supreme Court. In essence we are seeing two versions of fighting for American democracy. Before the Supreme Court, Donovan argues that Abel should be given “the full benefits of the rights that define our system of government.” He makes the case that by showing “who we are,” is “the greatest weapon we have in the Cold War.” He is basically saying that not following the laws that make America an exemplary form of government shows the world that we are no better than the enemies of democracy that we fight against. But he loses his logical argument in the face of an irrational situation, and the Court upholds the conviction.

In a dazzling piece of cinematography, the film shows Powers’s plane hit by enemy fire. He attempts to throw the self-destruct switch, but the cockpit canopy blows apart as the plane falls to the ground. Powers temporarily remains tethered and again attempts to flip the self-destruct switch. But his connecting line to the craft breaks and he opens his parachute. The Russians capture him and he, like Abel, receives a conviction for spying. the filmmakers have stressed the analogy between the two men.

Donovan receives a back-channel letter from East Germany that purports to come from Abel’s wife. Abel says the writing style shows it to be a fake but says that Donovan may as well answer it since it’s difficult to know what “move” to make when one doesn’t know “the game.” There is the implication that the letter may be an attempt to get Abel back to Soviet territory. Donovan meets with Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie), Director of the CIA. He acknowledges that Donovan was right about the possibility of a prisoner swap and believes that the Soviet Union is using East Germany so it will not have to acknowledge Abel as a Russian spy. The CIA wants Powers back before he cracks and gives up secrets, and Russia wants Abel returned for the same reason, although Donovan knows Abel would never cooperate. Dulles wants Donovan to appear to act (more deceiving appearances) as an independent citizen so that the U. S. Government does not appear to be involved. He will receive no help if “things go south.” As Dulles and Donovan state, there is a fiction being presented on both sides of the Cold War. So, Donovan must pretend that he is corresponding with Abel’s “wife,” and must be a spy himself now as he must go undercover, keeping his mission secret from everybody, including his wife. To complicate matters Russia wants to stop the negative appearance of refugees escaping from East Berlin to West Berlin and is ready to construct what becomes the infamous Berlin Wall. Dulles is funny when asked by Donovan what he should tell Abel. Dulles says, “tell him to stay alive.” It is ironic that the country that wanted Anel dead now needs him to be that “standing man.”

Another element is added to the exchange plan. As the Communists build the Berlin Wall amid chaos among the citizens of the city, American doctoral student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) rides his bicycle to get his girlfriend, Katje (Nadja Bobyleva) out of the city. Even though he has identification documents and is carrying his dissertation on Communist economics, the East Germans authorities arrest him.

Donovan travels to Berlin and he hears about the arrest of Pryor who the East Germans are saying is also a spy. Donovan, again trying to do whatever he can to make things right, wants to try and get Pryor out, but the U. S. stance is to worry about the student later. The lawyer, Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), representing the fake Mrs. Abel is also Pryor’s attorney. It appears that the East German and Soviet interests may not align, since the East Germans don’t want the Russians to treat them as pawns.

It is very dangerous for Donovan as he travels to East Germany without U. S. support. Food is scarce in East Berlin so there is crime and little police enforcement at this point to keep criminals in check. If Donovan gets too close to the wall he could be shot. He must also not draw attention to himself since he is a foreigner and could appear to be a spy. He has papers added to his passport which justify his entrance to East Berlin. He demonstrates his boldness by confronting the guards at the entrance to speed him ahead of the long line. It is very cold and youths accost him and he must give up his coat and walk in the freezing weather to his meeting. Donovan is also not feeling well since he caught a cold. The story shows the courage and persistence of the man in his pursuit in what he believes is just.

At the Russian Embassy where Donovan is to meet Vogel he encounters three people who say they are relatives of Abel. As Abel had said, the woman is pretending to be his wife and she has a fake daughter and cousin with her. They put on a show of grief that they hope will soften Donovan’s negotiation terms, but Vogel can see past their drama. Ivan Schischkin (Michael Gor), who says he’s a secretary at the embassy, but is really a KGB chief, appears instead of Vogel since the lawyer is a German and would make the negotiation between the U. S. and Russia more indirect. The two play a clever diplomatic game. The Russian wants to get Abel first so as to save face and then they will release Powers. Donovan rejects that move knowing they may never get Powers back. Schischkin suggests the quickness desired by Donovan means Abel has already given up what he knows and wants to stop Powers from doing the same. Donovan concludes that Powers must not have divulged anything, or the Soviets would agree to a fast trade. He suggests that Abel may still have secrets and will be willing to divulge them for some American favors and suggests that future Soviet prisoners might do the same if Russia will not seek their return expeditiously. Donovan says that that the two of them must work together so that their countries do not escalate their problems to the point that war is possible. Donovan makes a bold request to make Pryor part of the deal, but it is the East Germans who apprehended him, complicating the deal.

Donovan finally meets Vogel at the lawyer’s address. Vogel says that the United States must recognize East Germany as a sovereign state in exchange for Pryor. But Donovan can refuse that demand because he is not officially representing America and can’t grant that request. Vogel says that he also is not a representative of East Germany, so basically he is Donovan’s counterpart as their respective governments want to keep their distance from the activities. Vogel agrees to provide Pryor as part of the exchange. The implication is that if East Germany handles getting Abel back for the Russians it will acquire respect on the world stage for doing the Soviets a favor. The Feds just want Powers, but Donovan insists on Pryor being part of the deal. Powers was captured and didn’t commit suicide, so Donovan cuts through any humanitarian hype about getting him back. He knows that there is no love for the pilot and that the U. S. Government just doesn’t want him to leak information.

The Soviets apply tactics seen in The Ipcress File on Powers. They keep waking him up to wear him down, hoping to squeeze information about the spy flights out of him before the trade. There is a fitting symmetrical cut to the Feds arousing Abel in his cell to go to East Berlin. Schischkin says Russia has consented to exchanging Powers for Abel. Donovan thinks he also has a deal to get back Pryor, who everyone knows is not a spy, from the East Germans. But when he meets Vogel again the lawyer is angry that Donovan has made a deal for getting two-for-one. East Germany wants all the credit for getting Abel. Donovan again uses his insurance argument that this transaction is all part of one deal. Donovan rides in Vogel’s car because he is going to West Berlin. Vogel points out the devastation in East Berlin and reflects his country’s anger at Russia for deciding not to rebuild the city. He deliberately speeds the car and the police stop them. Vogel knows that without the proper credentials the authorities will detain Donovan.

The film then provides shots of what is now four incarcerated individuals in this story: Powers, Abel, Pryor and now Donovan. The police release Donovan and, as he rides the train to West Berlin, he witnesses the shooting of people trying to scale the Berlin Wall. That scene adds visceral shock to the horrors taking place in the world.

The U. S. Government has been keeping Donovan under wraps and placed him in an obscure, dingy, cold dwelling. He decides to be defiant considering what he has endured and shows up at the Hilton and orders a proper breakfast at the place where CIA agent Hoffman is staying. He points out to Hoffman that his night in jail wasn’t much worse than where the CIA set him up to stay. Donovan learns that the East German Attorney General, Herald Ott (Burghart Klaubner), called to meet Donovan, but Hoffman sees that as nothing important since they will be getting Powers.

Donovan never wavers from his moral imperative of trying to get Pryor returned. Donovan takes the meeting with Ott who is congenial about exchanging Pryor for Abel but is outraged when Donovan mentions Powers. Ott says the release of an innocent man is understandable, but why care about what in essence he sees as spilled milk when it comes to Powers. Ott gets a call and Donovan waits outside Ott’s office and a worker there tells Donovan the Attorney General had to leave. Here is where Donovan takes advantage of his unofficial negotiating status by making the demands he sees as morally fit, unencumbered by the political posturings of the countries involved. He gives the employee a message stating that there will be no exchange for either the Soviets or East Germany if the deal isn’t for both Pryor and Powers. He adds weight to his demand with the scenario that if Abel realizes he will not return to Russia he may change his mind about cooperating with U. S. intelligence. Ott must call by the end of the day since there will be no point in going to the Glienickie Bridge in the morning if the deal is off.

As IMDb points out, as Donovan passes a movie theater on his way to calling his wife the marquee shows the film playing is Spartacus. Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay when he was on the Hollywood blacklist and this movie was the first to show his real name during that time. The inclusion points to how destructive the anti-communist fear was in America. In another scene Spielberg also includes a reference to the film One, Two, Three, a satire about the Cold War, again stressing the preoccupation with this time in history. Donovan’s family thinks he is in London and his children are too “busy” to say hello to him on the phone. Given what he’s been going through it’s funny when he asks Mary if the kids even noticed he hadn’t been “around.”

Donovan receives a call saying the exchange is on, but Pryor will be released at Checkpoint Charlie only after Abel and Powers are traded. The tenseness of the scene at the Glienickie Bridge is heightened since there are snipers from both sides in position to open fire if needed. Abel is happy to see Donovan there, knowing that this person who works for his enemy is an honorable man. Donovan’s actions show what he said earlier that demonstrating the best of American ideals is the strongest weapon against the enemies of the United States.

These two keep their sense of humor in this dangerous situation. Fellow U.S. pilot Officer Murphy (the recently Oscar-nominated Jesse Plemons) is there to identify Powers. Abel wonders who will ID him and Donovan says that he hopes it isn’t his fabricated East German family who couldn’t identify each other. When Donovan asks Abel what will happen when he gets back home Abel says he’ll “have a vodka.”  He then soberly says he will be considered to have acted honorably if he’s embraced. But, if the Soviets show him “the back seat” of a car, he might be punished. To help Donovan, Abel refuses to cross the bridge until Pryor is released. When the word comes that the student has arrived, the two prisoners cross the bridge. Donovan looks in dismay as there is no embrace for Abel, only the open door to the back seat.

Nobody will acknowledge Powers on the airplane back home. The CIA and military see him as a failed soldier no matter what he says about not divulging anything.  For them, he should have sacrificed his life as a patriot instead of allowing Russia to display him as a spy. He tells Donovan he told the Russians nothing. Donovan tells him it doesn’t matter what others believe, only Powers knows what he did. He could be talking about himself, since Donovan was hated for his defense of Abel. But he knows he did what was right legally with Abel, and secretly fashioned the release of two American prisoners without seeking thanks. He only wishes to go home.

However, when Donovan arrives home he receives acknowledgement of his efforts on TV to his family’s astonishment. A passenger on the train to work now sees the bigger picture that Donovan was a part of and smiles at him. Donovan may have come home, but when he sees boys jumping over a backyard fence, his face looks troubled as we know he is thinking of those shot at the Berlin Wall. The horror of the time has come home with him.

A title card at the end of the film says that President John F. Kennedy recruited Donovan to negotiate the release of 1,113 prisoners from the Bay of Pigs invasion. He arranged for 9,703 to be let go. He was an extraordinary man.

The next post will offer comments on recent streaming shows: The Good Nurse; The Watcher; Bad Sisters: The Patient.