Saturday, October 17, 2015

Two good pictures

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing both Black Mass and Bridge of Spies. The first is set in Boston, and seems to have been filmed there, mostly in Southie. It is the story of James (Whitey) Bulger and how he more or less flimflammed the FBI for years by giving them some info about the rival Mafiosi in return for the feds leaving him and his gang free to engage in their wide run of illegal activities. 

Johnny Depp does a great job playing "Jimmy" Bulger and Benedict Cumberbatch is even better as his respectable brother, Billy, who was President of the Massachusetts State Senate and then Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts until it turned out that his claim that he had no knowledge of what his brother Jimmy was up to fell apart near the end of Billy's career and he was forced to resign as head of the university.

The whole sordid story--including how an FBI operative who had grown up with the Bulgers set up the special relationship and in the end was consumed by it--comes across through realistic portrayals of all the players, both gang members and federal agents. 

Bridge of Spies is the story of how New York lawyer James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, agrees to represent a captured Russian spy, Col. Rudolf Abel, in U.S. federal court in Brooklyn during the late 50s when anti-communism was rampant. He even took what seemed like a good legal case for a clearly guilty defendant all the way to the Supreme Court and was complimented for his willingness to take the case by Chief Justice Earl Warren, one of the dissenters in Donovan's 5-4 loss before the high court.

Hanks does a fine job especially in the Berlin phase of the picture, where Donovan, unofficially working for the CIA, negotiates Abel's exchange for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot captured by the Russians when they took his spy plane down. Donovan comes across as braver than I recall because clearly the judge, the prosecutor, the CIA, and Donovan's own law firm expected him to put in a pro forma appearance, not really engage in zealous representation.

In real life, Donovan's notoriety from this case led to his success--mentioned in the movie at the end--in negotiating the release of thousands of Cubans after the Bay of Pigs disaster. But the film did not mention that he also ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against the popular incumbent, Jacob Javits, and served as president of the New York City Board of Education, a somewhat thankless job that did not add any lustre to his record.

But he did deserve a lot of praise for his bravery in upholding the finest standards of the bar in defending Abel and then negotiating his exchange. Hanks also confirms his status as the greatest living portrayer of "everyman" in U.S. films.

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