17th 04 - 2009 | 4 comments »

Breach (2007)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Billy Ray

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Billy Ray’s third feature, State of Play, opens widely today, so, naturally, I’m reviewing his second feature. (We at Ferdy on Films are nothing if not a bit perverse.) Ray’s debut feature, Shattered Glass (2003), told the true story of Stephen Glass, a rising star at The New Republic who was fired and drummed out of journalism for fabricating stories. State of Play, a truncated adaptation of a six-part BBC miniseries, returns to journalism, as a newspaper reporter follows his nose to discover conspiracies and cover-ups behind two seemingly simple deaths.

Breach bridges the gap between these films—another based-on-fact drama about Robert Hanssen, the most dangerous traitor uncovered in the United States to date. Hanssen’s history of spilling state secrets to the Soviet Union and, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, to Russia, spanned a 20-year period—almost his entire career in the intelligence division of the FBI. Two confirmed deaths occurred as a result of his activities, and up to 50 more are suspected. Hanssen’s is a story made for the movies and especially the type of movie for which Billy Ray is becoming known.

The film opens with archival footage from February 20, 2001, of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing that an enemy of freedom, Robert Hanssen, had been arrested. The date sent a chill down my spine, which only intensified when the title card “Two months earlier” introduces a scene of counterintelligence surveillance of a married couple from the Middle East. A cleverly hidden cameraman, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), snaps picture after picture of the arguing couple, then climbs back into the black van that contains two of his colleagues. They offer up a copy of a report he wrote and rag on him for ignoring the team. “If you’d read it, you’d see you two were named in the acknowledgments,” the ambitious O’Neill shoots back, a subtle way the film suggests that the FBI is like any other workplace—full of work that never gets read and people who make assumptions based on appearances.

O’Neill wants to become an agent, and when he is called on a Sunday into the office of Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) and given an assignment to spy on newly promoted Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). He is to work as Hanssen’s assistant and look for evidence that Hanssen is posting or distributing sexually explicit material, which Burroughs says could be a major embarrassment to the bureau. O’Neill sees this as a demotion from his counterintelligence work, but asks if this is a major case that will forward his ambitions. Burroughs tells him nothing.

O’Neill meets Hanssen for the first time in their triple-lock-protected office space. Hanssen asks O’Neill to tell him five things about himself, four of which are true, an exercise he used to play with colleagues to keep sharp on reading people. O’Neill says he’s not a very good liar. After a pause, Hanssen says, “That would count as your lie.”

As O’Neill gets to know Hanssen, he learns the man is highly suspicious and attuned to the slightest detail, extremely intelligent about computer systems and security, a devout Catholic, resentful of the FBI’s gun culture that determines whether you’re in or out, and alarmed to hear that O’Neill’s wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) is from East Germany. Nonetheless, the two men begin to form a relationship of sorts based on Hanssen’s desire to get the lapsed Catholic back into the fold. The O’Neills spend one Sunday with Hanssen and his wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan) at church and then have dinner at the Hanssen home, where Eric watches Bob play with his grandchildren and learns about Hanssen’s tough, unsympathetic father. Hanssen presents him with a binder full of articles he spent the night pulling from the Internet to help O’Neill cope with his mother’s Parkinson’s disease.

Eric, having observed no evidence of sexual deviance and convinced Hanssen is the salt of the earth, confronts Burroughs with doubts about the investigation. “You admire him,” she says. “Actually, you had to to serve our purposes.” She then stuns him with the news that he is helping to break the biggest case in FBI counterintelligence history, and introduces him to Agent Dean Plesac (Dennis Haysbert) and the rest of the very large team. They have accumulated evidence of Hanssen’s treachery, but Hanssen has been so clever that it won’t be sufficient to convict him of the most serious charges. They want to catch Hanssen in the act of passing secrets. “But that will mean the death penalty,” says a shaken O’Neill. “Don’t you think he deserves it?” Plesac retorts.

The rest of the movie essentially pits O’Neill’s wits against Hanssen’s. Can he get information on Hanssen’s Palm Pilot downloaded without Hanssen noticing? Can the team dismantle Hanssen’s car to search it without arousing his suspicions that the car was touched? Now that O’Neill knows just what a rat Hanssen is, will he be able to keep his head?

Breach is pretty much a standard-issue thriller, with a number of cooked-up moments of suspense that are there by the grace of the screenwriters. For example, when Hanssen is unexpectedly stood up for an appointment, he orders O’Neill to drive him back to his office well before the team can reassemble Hanssen’s car. What’s O’Neill to do? He takes a longer route that just conveniently is jammed up by a jack-knifed truck. Or, when the team learns that Hanssen has decided to go underground, O’Neill tells them to back off their surveillance tails—he can get Hanssen to make an expected drop. Naturally, this ploy puts O’Neill at risk for his life. Or, Hanssen carelessly gives O’Neill a package to deliver (which he steams open) that contains a film of him and Bonnie having sex. These kinds of creaky plot devices should have sunk this movie.

But they don’t, not surprisingly, because Chris Cooper, perhaps the finest American actor working today, is at the helm. Because the story takes place at the end of Hanssen’s run as a spy, we don’t really get much background information about him or his motives. We are fortunate that this smart script offers us Hanssen’s real words in the form of his deencrypted letters to his Soviet/Russian handlers. His arrogance regarding his intelligence, his contempt for his coworkers, his graciousness toward the comrades who realize that he’s a very important person are ego issues that few of us haven’t experienced. Yet because of where he works, he literally holds lives in his hands. He wasn’t trying to get rich—greed would have undone him by arousing suspicions over a lavish lifestyle or enlarged bank accounts—just accumulate a quiet power. Cooper realizes that a double life can only be maintained by making each life deeply felt. A veneer of respectability is easy to see through. True respectability is not, and Hanssen, as embodied by Cooper, is completely convincing as a devoted convert to the extreme Catholicism of Opus Dei and a superpatriot who sees godlessness as the fatal flaw of the Soviet bloc. And yet, this belief must have been at least a bit of a fraud—perhaps a remnant of his preconversion self—because he actively worked against the United States for this godless empire. Hanssen must have been the king of compartmentalization—which is prerequisite for a fanatic—but because this film compresses events, it’s hard to see clearly. It is only through Cooper’s superhuman skills that we are able to understand a bit about what makes a master spy on the inside.

I’m not a big fan of Ryan Phillippe, but playing with Cooper sharpened his game. He inhabits O’Neill (perhaps also through the help of the real Eric O’Neill, who was ever-present on the shoot) as a naïve do-gooder who learns how to lie and play on this man’s religious convictions and family-values morality to get what he wants, using Juliana as an excuse for just about every deception he has to run. When, in the end, he gives up the spy game, we’re not surprised. He admired Hanssen at first because that’s the kind of FBI O’Neill wanted to believe in.

The rest of the cast don’t really emerge from their stock characters, despite Ray’s scheme to first show the façade of the principal players—ambitious O’Neill, imperious Hanssen, hard-as-nails Burroughs—only to reveal the more vulnerable people underneath as soon as Burroughs lets the cat out of the bag to O’Neill. This might have worked in an entirely fictional film, but in a case as well-publicized as this one, we already know that nothing is what it seems. O’Neill is actually the only dynamic character in the film, but his growth seems a bland meal of insight indeed when it’s Hanssen we really want to know about.

The film benefits from its use of real locations, and in an extra on the DVD, we learn that Hanssen’s office and the surrounding FBI offices and corridors were built as exact duplicates of the real things. In fact, the DVD extras are superb, and fill in many of the gaps left by the film itself. On the whole, I enjoyed this film. Great writing and performances disguise what a paint-by-numbers job it is. Ray is a director the James Bond franchise might want to consider.

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12th 09 - 2007 | no comment »

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Director: J. J. Abrams

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

As much as cinephiles love to rail against Hollywood and the dearth of good first-run movies in the popcorn days of summer, there’s a lot to be said for some exciting, escapist entertainment. This past weekend, deep in a grief-induced depression, I plunked myself in front of my television for a double-header of mindless immersion. First, I gobbled X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the third installment in this fantasy franchise that I love just for being about superheroes. It makes no sense, of course, but that’s what’s so great about it. The X-Men are just totally awesome, and their school is kind of a Hogwarts without the wands.

Then, only somewhat less ridiculous was Mission: Impossible III. I haven’t been as diligent about following this franchise as I have with X-Men and the Bourne capers; I enjoyed the first film well enough, but my fondness for the television series has kept me from completely buying into the emotionalism of the film versions. Barbara Bain, Martin Landau, Greg Morris, Peter Graves, and Peter Lupus were just so cool, almost wordlessly getting their impossible mission accomplished and never cracking, even when tortured. By contrast, the new IMF team of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Luther (Ving Rhames), Zhen (Maggie Q), Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and Benji (Simon Pegg) are wisecracking, adrenalin-pumped, friendly sorts who use the techniques of the TV IMF, but give the impression that they are always winging it, even when their plans are meticulously structured.

MI%20Cruise.JPGHaving said all this, I must say that the M:I franchise is near the top of the heap of action movies. If you like explosions, chases, breathless cutting, and a likable hero to root for, these films—and particularly M:I 3—are for you. What M:I 3 does that would be unthinkable in the TV series is give Ethan Hunt a life. We all know that a spy’s life is a lonely one. Ethan dares to defy that convention, recklessly putting his beloved in danger because he doesn’t want to be out in the cold, because he wants to remember the world for which the IMF is fighting, to be a part of it. This point of view stands squarely at the center of the “you can have it all” ethos of the past 20 years. It makes Ethan a character more easily identified with, less a superhero than an athletic superstar. The film emphasizes this with a lot of trick photography that makes the 42-year-old Cruise look like he’s running as fast as Lance Armstrong can cycle and move with reflexes Jackie Chan in his prime couldn’t begin to approach.

The film begins on a scene that won’t happen until the film is more than half over. Ethan, banged up and tied down, watches as a villain we will later find out is black marketer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) holds a gun to a woman’s head and starts counting. Ethan begs him not to shoot, that he wants to help Davian get what he’s after. A pained tear runs down his face as Davian reaches 9. A pleading look, the count of 10, and bang! We’re into the movie.

Retired IMF agent Ethan is at his engagement party to the young and winsome Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Partygoers gossip with Julia about how she met Ethan. She tells them about a lake they went to, but can’t remember the name. Ethan, who has been watching her with the eyes of love through some glass doors, comes in and mentions the name to her. Everyone wonders how he could have known what they were talking about. We know. He’s an IMF agent who is a master of lip reading, of course. A call comes to Ethan’s cellphone. The caller with a seemingly innocuous message puts a worried furrow into Ethan’s brow. Ethan takes the ice cooler, dumps its contents, then tells Julia he has to go out to get more ice. He slips off and intercepts that package that self-destructs in 5 seconds after conveying the mission—retrieve captured agent Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), Ethan’s protégé and a key operative in taking down Davian.

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The emotional connection Ethan has to Lindsey forces his hand. He signs on and meets up with his old pal Luther, who introduces him to the rest of the team. They execute a nearly perfect rescue mission, but Lindsey has had an explosive implanted in her brain. Just seconds before a defibrillator on the helicopter charges to short-circuit the device, the explosive goes off. The clouding of Keri Russell’s eye after this happens really is effective, a grisly image Ethan can carry around for future reference.

Intelligence has it that something called Rabbit’s Foot will pass from Davian to some unknown buyers, and this would be a very bad thing. The IMF force is sent to a reception at the Vatican to stop Davian. In a classic M:I caper, Zhen dresses to the nines and infiltrates the reception in her late-model, cherry-red Maserati. Ethan sculpts a perfect disguise of Davian, uses some cool voice-simulation technology to copy his voice, and takes his place. The real Davian is captured for interrogation. It’s a very, very tasty operation that ranks with the best of the TV show’s stunts and improves upon them with better locations and gizmos.

MI3%20Davion.jpgDavian has vowed to hunt down anyone Ethan loves and kill him in front of her/him/it. He gets the chance when some black ops forces from Davian’s buyers spring him in a spectacular bridge attack sequence. (It wasn’t as cool as Magneto tearing the Golden Gate Bridge in half and swinging it to form a bridge to Alcatraz in X-Men 3, but you can’t have everything!) Davian, of course, snatches Julia, and forces Ethan and his IMF buddies to steal the Rabbit’s Foot from a fortresslike office building in Shanghai and deliver it to him. The scene where Ethan comes up with the parachute scheme to get into the building—drawing on a window to outline the buildings they would assault—is the brilliant kind of lunacy you would expect from an IMF leader caught in an emotional frenzy.

Events unfold in their inevitable way, with Ethan unable to deliver the Rabbit’s Foot, and that brings us to where the film opened. The denouement really strains credulity past the breaking point, but what the hell.

MI3%20explosion.jpgI found the parts of the film that remained true to the M:I spirit entirely satisfying. Other elements now de rigueur in action movies—explosions, low-flying helicopters threading through visually exciting obstacle courses (lots of vehicles of all types, in fact), double-triple-double crosses—I just accepted as part of the baggage. I didn’t think Philip Seymour Hoffman was a particularly chilling bad guy; unlike John Lithgow in similar roles, he was unwilling to chew the scenery even though he’s entirely capable of it. Ving Rhames was fun in an essentially humorless film. Billy Crudup and Lawrence Fishburn didn’t add much as higher-ups in IMF, but they did what they needed to do.

MI%20Monaghan.JPGMost of all, however, I liked Tom Cruise in a performance that was clearly inspired by his newfound love, Katie Holmes. Michelle Monaghan is a bit of a ringer for Holmes, and the love scenes between her and Cruise were absolutely convincing and deeply felt. I don’t care what anyone says about Cruise’s couch jumping or odd religious beliefs—this is one fellow who has finally found love and who is not shy about showing it, even in his movies. This is an action film that manages to be a darn good romance, too.

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22nd 02 - 2006 | 3 comments »

The Ipcress File (1965)

Director: Sidney J. Furie

Ipcress1

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Cold War that pitted Western Europe and the United States against the Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe proved fertile to the imaginations of writers, filmmakers, and fans of both. As a child in 1960s America, I remember enjoying the black-and-white, cone-nosed spooks in Mad Magazine‘s “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon, Don Adams as bumbling spy Maxwell Smart in the TV series “Get Smart,” British TV imports like “The Prisoner” and “Secret Agent” (“they’re giving you a number and taking ‘way your name”), and of course, the ultracool 007 in the exciting James Bond movie franchise based on Ian Fleming’s popular book series. Taken together, I suppose my impressions of spies were that they either were silly and confused or cool supermen whom fate could toss but never tumble. Neither vision was based in reality, but I wasn’t sufficiently interested at the time to learn more.

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It is only at this late date that I realize there were alternative views of spies, ones closer to the truth, available in the 60s. One prime example that showed audiences where spies came from and a bit more of what they actually did was The Ipcress File. Based on a novel by Len Deighton, The Ipcress File shows British spies largely without the upper-class pedigrees and casual success assumed by the James Bond flicks. Instead, these spooks are former military men—”passed over majors” as one of the characters says to another—probably with less-than-stellar academic careers at second-rate private schools.

Ipcress4

The main character, a lowly operative named Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), is a working-class bloke who, when given the choice between jail and espionage, chose the latter. He is described as follows: “Insubordinate! Insolent! A trickster. Perhaps with criminal tendencies.” Palmer hardly cuts a dashing figure, with his double-thick glasses and menial work in surveillance. When we first meet him, he’s oversleeping—alone—as a wind-up alarm clock rattles on for a godawful long time. Reporting late to his surveillance assignment, he is redirected to his boss, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), and reassigned to the counterespionage unit of Major Dalby (Nigel Green) to replace an agent who was killed during the kidnapping of a scientist he was guarding. Orders are to retrieve the scientist, one of more than 100 lost to government service through retirement, a better offer in the private sector, or a rather mysterious inability to work. We’re not talking a commando rescue into a heavily armed compound in the middle of the ocean here. The British government plans to buy him back from the kidnappers, plain and simple. Toward that end, the agents under Dalby are sent out to find the mastermind of the kidnapping, a fellow named Brantby (code name “Bluejay”), played with effete relish by Frank Gatliff. Palmer easily locates him with the help of a friend in Scotland Yard, but Brantby refuses to be pinned down.

Ipcress 2

A rescue attempt is made based on a hunch Palmer has about where the scientist is being held. No trace of the man is found, but a length of audiotape stamped with the word “Ipcress” is found in a still-warm stove. Conventional negotiations somehow are arranged by Dalby, the scientist is paid for and returned, but he is later found to have been rendered entirely useless to the government. A colleague of Palmer’s (Gordon Jackson) suspects stress-induced brainwashing and shares his evidence with Palmer, putting both their lives at risk.

Ipcress3

The Ipcress File is a fairly predictable story of dirty tricks in the spy business, at least to those of us who have been watching these kinds of movies for years. What made it remarkable at the time and what still makes it remarkable is what a crucible of its time it was. We are watching Britain in transition, as the regal view the nation always had of itself started to give way to a more realistic approach to life on the island. As Rod Heath pointed out in his essay on this blog “Look Back: Influences and Major Figures of the British Free Cinema,” this was a film of the “generation that had been drafted into the Second World War, gained status and experience in their temporary socialisation of British society as well as a college education, but found themselves deeply frustrated, as the whole country did, in the post-War malaise.”

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Palmer appears to be a gourmet cook and patron of the fine arts, presaging today’s yuppies with his bending (but not breaking) of the rules and his taste for the finer things without the entitlement of birth and breeding to them. Spying consists of filling out paperwork, playing politics with other policing agencies in and outside of one’s own government, and being told what a lousy job one is doing. Palmer’s not indignant that the scientist has been brainwashed—he doesn’t really care about the intellectual loss to his country—he’s upset that Brantby got good money for damaged goods. In the end, when Palmer complains to Ross that he might have been killed or driven mad by Ross’s manipulation of him to find a mole in the organization, he gets his comeuppance when Ross counters, “That’s what you’re paid to do.” So much for spying as a lifestyle. It’s just a job, and not a very good one at that. At least Palmer gets to be a successful womanizer.

The Ipcress File is filled with sharp dialogue, interesting performances and character actors, and an excess of trick camera angles so popular at the time. The low, skewed camera angles that predominate make it seem as though the cinematographer was Toulouse-Lautrec. There is also a great fondness for frames of all sorts. Oftentimes, characters are trapped inside doorways and window frames. You can also find them behind cages and bars of various types. My favorite was a bird’s-eye shot through the top of a lampshade onto the face of a dead man on the floor. The look is amusing but amateurish. These camera angles do not seem justified by the material, particularly as presented. Where noir uses such devices to distort reality, a film that deals in kitchen-sink realism should strive for a more verite feel. Still, I can forgive the enthusiasm that went into these set-ups, and kind of wish I’d been in on the planning. I enjoyed The Ipcress File a lot.


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