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Movie Reviews: 'Bridge of Spies', 'Beasts of No Nation'

Politics aside, Tom Hanks and Idris Elba loom large in two of the year's best films.

Netflix | Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Bridge of Spies is an old Hollywood throwback, the kind where you'd better be good with faces because everyone dresses the same. And I mean everyone. Women are barely seen in this world of espionage. Based on the 1960 U-2 Incident near the height of the Cold War (Bay of Pigs was a year away), Tom Hanks leads Bridge of Spies as James B. Donovan, insurance lawyer and negotiator extraordinaire. Tasked with a job he didn't ask for, that makes his country hate him, Donovan embarks on a quest of principal. And Spielberg, for his part, sheds a light on a virtually unknown American hero.

Movie Reviews: 'Bridge of Spies', 'Beasts of No Nation'
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The greatness of Bridge of Spies is in its storytelling. The script, by Matt Charman with an assist from Joel and Ethan Coen, flows so naturally the film is even funny at times. We meet the best character at the beginning: Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance, in an awards-worthy supporting performance) is a Russian spy arrested in Brooklyn. With FBI agents filling his room, Abel calmly destroys evidence and meekly surrenders. But he refuses to cooperate, or worry, something his lawyer questions.

Enter Donovan, who agrees to defend Abel when his partners (Alan Alda among them) request it. He tries to get the judge to see Abel as soldier refusing to cooperate with the enemy, but everyone's mind is made up. On the subway, ladies sneer at Donovan and in the courtroom, the judge dismisses him. Abel is found guilty, but Donovan argues against the death penalty and the judge tentatively agrees. If one of our boys is captured in the USSR, Abel becomes a valuable trading chip.

When that exact scenario plays out, Donovan gets credit for his smarts but also another job: to negotiate the swap. Hanks brings his usual charm and credibility to Donovan, but he also gets to be the smartest guy in the room, something his affability usually costs him in roles. He's especially impressive playing off his co-stars, whether it's a secret smile after a dressing down or final word in a tense argument. And Spielberg, who shoots the film like a noir thanks to cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, allows some of his usual melodrama to creep in. But he keeps Bridge of Spies tense with several scenes that recall the intensity of Schindler's List and Munich. The violence grounds the film and heightens the context of the negotiations. Spielberg's choice of narrative may not thrill the masses, but Bridge of Spies is a thrilling film. Grade: B+

Movie Reviews: 'Bridge of Spies', 'Beasts of No Nation'

Idris Elba is the stormcloud in Beasts of No Nation, a giant presence who commands attention. He's also called "Commandant," which helps, but it's the fire in this man that moves people, not his title. That movement, to be sure, is towards death and that makes Commandant either Lucifer or the Grim Reaper. Perhaps he's both. Elba, scintillating as one of the best villains of the year, cannot be denied. Who else could make a Puka shell necklace look badass? He is one of the finest actors working today, and Beasts of No Nation is more proof.

Beasts of No Nation (thematically linked to the similarly titled Beasts of the Southern Wild from three years ago, in their depictions of diaspora) refers to the displaced child soldiers of Africa. Agu (Abraham Attah) grows up smiling and imaginative with his parents, brother, and sister in an unnamed African country. In a heartbeat, he's left alone. With war at the doorstep, he's unable to flee with his mother and sister because there's no room in the car. Agu hides when the rebel NDF fighters and government troops wage war in his village. His father and brother are killed and Agu heads into the bush, alone. 

Soon, Agu learns his future. He's violently captured by NDF rebels and their leader, the Commandant, wades through the crowd like Caesar to peer at the 12-year-old boy. Luckily, Commandant likes him, and keeps Agu by his side, along with another boy, Strika, who never speaks. The boys become close and the film plays out from their perspective. A natural friendship blossoms between them, but their happy times are always cut short. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga forces the violence of this world upon us, as it's forced upon Agu. When the inevitable happens, and Agu must kill a man to prove himself, the scene is painfully authentic. And it's only the beginning.

Beasts of No Nation isn't a horror film, despite the body count. It's bloody, but inspiring, and even funny at times thanks to an incredible cast of characters. (Some, like Two I-C, sound like Star Wars droids.) It's a film of innocence misplaced, not lost. And, although the subject matter is political and obviously relevant, the film is the story of a boy caught in a nightmare. Fukunaga, who also wrote the script, wonders how someone can recover from the experience. Going along for the ride isn't easy, but no one should miss it. Grade: B+

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