Tag: Cold War

Dr Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Peter Sellers tries to stop the end of the world in the terrific satire Dr Strangelove

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Peter Sellers (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake/President Merkin Muffley/Dr Strangelove), George C. Scott (General Buck Turgidson), Sterling Hayden (Brigadier General Jack D Ripper), Keenan Wynn (Colonel Bat Guano), Slim Pickens (Major “King” Kong), Peter Bull (Russian Ambassador), Jack Creley (Mr Staines), James Earl Jones (Lt Lothar Zogg), Tracy Reed (Miss Foreign Affairs)

“Gentlemen you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” Kubrick’s hugely influential satire helped shape our perceptions of the Cold War and its mantra of mutually assured direction. Showing no mercy to its targets, it mixes Goonish schoolboy humour with moments of genuine tension and rising horror. Sure it features some of the faults of its director –self-importance, cold distance and much of the wit is due to Sellers and the performers rather than the not-particularly-witty-Kubrick – but there is no doubt it remains a seminal classic.

General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden – excellent) orders his planes to drop their nuclear bombs on the USSR. Ripper is launching a pre-emptive strike to protect the American way of life from the Commies and, most importantly, to protect our precious bodily fluids. Yup he’s crazy, something his second-in-command RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) quickly realises, but can’t do anything about. US President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) reacts with horror at the prospect of all-out-war, negotiating with the Soviets to co-operate in shooting down the planes, while some of his advisors such as trigger-happy General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott, hilariously OTT) argue perhaps there is some merit in striking first. And sinister former-Nazi scientific consultant Dr Strangelove (Sellers one more time) spells out the impact of nuclear war.

Kubrick quickly came to the conclusion that if you were going to make a film about nuclear war, it almost couldn’t be anything buta comedy: after all the idea of two sides building a huge arsenal of weapons capable of destroying the world was so crazy, you wouldn’t believe it if you were told it. Dr Strangelove therefore ends up taking place in a world that’s one third grounded and two-thirds heightened reality. There is a great deal of college-style humour in the film (you can see it in those characters names which reference everything from the Whitechapel killer to female genitalia and excrement), but it works because its (mostly) played dead-straight.

Part of the film’s appeal was the number of sacred cows it slays. All the things that, at the time, America was meant to respect were ridiculed. The military, politicians, the Presidency, America’s moral authority, the ingenuity of American science and engineering. It’s all shown to be ineffectual, misguided, underpinned by fascist-tinged insanity, myopically obsessed with big bangs over humanity or plain ridiculous. Every single authority figure in the film is deconstructed over its course as some combination of childish, empathy-free or useless. You can’t come out of this film and every again have an unquestioning assurance our leaders know what they are doing.

This works, because it’s placed in a film that in many ways has the plot of a far more serious film (its very similar of course to Fail Safe). Chunks of it are played completely straight, or with just the merest touch of the surreal. In particular the sequences set on the bomber, commanded by Major Kong (played at short notice by Slim Pickens after injury prevented Sellers taking on that role as well) have that true sense of Kubrickian detail in their careful staging of all the procedures a bomber crew would follow (even if it still allows some fun to be poked at the expense of the survival kit, the contents of which would give a fella “a pretty good weekend in Vegas”).

Those bomber scenes sometimes outstay their welcome in their cold technicality (it’s odd to say that a film as short of this sometimes feels a little overlong), but that’s largely because in a film that is clearly demanding us to shake our heads at the madness, it struggles to get us invested in a more conventional heroic story (especially as success there is starting a nuclear conflagration).

Perhaps that’s because of the coldness in Kubrick’s style – emotion doesn’t often find its way into his greatest works, and he was often reliant on working with the right people (get a McDowell in it or a  Nicholson and things can click, get an O’Neal and you can get a different story). Humour isn’t his strong suit, but fortunately he worked with Sellers at his finest hours. Sellers takes on three roles, all of them a sharp contrast, and he’s masterful in all of them. There were fewer more gifted improvisational performers than Sellers, and each of his parts benefits hugely from the dynamism (of various sorts) he gives them. It’s also interesting that two of them are actually the “one sane man” (Muffley and Mandrake) while Strangelove is a pantomime monster of insanity (introduced late in the film, he’s the final indicator that our fates are in the hands of complete lunatics).

For Mandrake, Sellers parodied the stiff-upper lip upper class, with Mandrake a stuffed-shirt, attempting to wheedle recall codes out with Ripper with a clumsy bonhomie. Muffley is played almost dead-straight as a weak man out of his depth. But he does have a phone call monologue with the Russian premier (largely improvised with Sellers) that is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see. There’s no restraint in Strangelove, a wheel-chair bound grotesque with a phantom (hardcore fascist) hand, constantly suppressing involuntary Hitler salutes and trying to hide his mounting excitement at the prospect of worldwide annihilation (“Mein Fuhrer! I can valk!”).

Kubrick’s directorial approach – wisely – seems to have been to acknowledge that Sellers was providing so much of the madness and dark comedy the concept demands, that he could be more restrained. Interestingly, for being his most famous film, it often feels like one of his least personal ones. It stands outside much of the Kubrick cannon – it’s short, its often brisk, technically it’s unflashy and often unobtrusive – and it plays on the director’s weakest vein, comedy.

But it’s got his mastery of detail – partly also due to its faultless set design by Ken Adam. The reconstruction of the bomber interior is overwhelmingly convincing (the Air Force was amazed at how accurate it was). Ripper’s low-ceilinged office is a visual metaphor for the character’s insular insanity. Most influential of-all, the Bond villain-ish War Room, with its vast circular table and huge screens was so perfectly conceived, it cemented the idea for generations of what war planning rooms should look like (Reagan even asked where it was when he took office). The film may be darkly surreal, but its surroundings give it an authority that is essential for its success.

Authority is what the film needed to work. Perhaps that’s the greatest contribution of Kubrick, to create a structure of convincing reality, allowing the surreal and insane actions to work. From Ripper’s clear fixation on his own impotence (“I do not avoid women but I do deny them my essence”) – to Turgidson’s increasingly bombastic militarism (“I don’t say we won’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed. Tops.”), they all work because they contrast with a setting soaked in reality and detail. It also adds the important depth that gives the film impact: sure it wouldn’t happen like this, but something like this could happen.

Dr Strangelove’s humour has at times dated – there’s something undeniably schoolboyish about its tone. Stretches showing the detail of the bomber’s operation go on way too long. The film itself also takes a while to get going, and like many Kubrick films it has an air of being pleased with itself. But in Sellers it has a comic genius at the height of his game and its impact in changing the way we think about the world can’t be denied. Still a classic.

Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Rock Hudson takes command in the rather turgid cold war thriller Ice Station Zebra

Director: John Sturges

Cast: Rock Hudson (Commander James Farraday), Ernest Borgnine (Boris Vaslov), Patrick McGoohan (David Jones), Jim Brown (Captain Leslie Anders), Tony Bill (Lt Russell Walker), Lloyd Nolan (Admiral Garvey), Alf Kjellin (Colonel Ostrovsky)

Rumour has it that Howard Hughes loved this movie so much, he insisted on the Las Vegas TV broadcaster he owned to screen the film over 100 times. For most of the rest of us, once will probably be enough to take in all the fun that can be pulled out of this sub-par Alistair MacLean Cold War thriller, a poor relation to The Guns of the Navarone and Where Eagles Dare.

It’s the middle of the Cold War and US submarine commander James Farraday (Rock Hudson) is ordered to the North Pole to rescue a British scientific team. However that mission is just a cover for the real goal – something to do with retrieving a top secret gizmo from a crashed satellite. Farraday is ordered to transport British intelligence agent “David Jones” (Patrick McGoohan) to the Pole, who has bought Soviet defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) along with him. En route, sabotage nearly downs the sub, and on arrival the base has been nearly destroyed. Looks like there is a traitor on board – but is it Boris or recently arrived marine Captain Leslie Anders (Jim Brown)? Who can tell?

To be honest most people watching the film. It’s one of many not-particularly-intriguing mysteries in a hopelessly over-extended film that takes nearly two hours to get going, and then crams its paper-thin characters into a series of adventures that bounce from dull to cliché with giddy haste. Directed with a professional lack of engagement by John Sturges (who could believe the director of Bad Day at Black Rock and The Great Escape could have made something as flat as this?).

It’s a film that mistakes lack of explanations and rushed conclusions for intriguing mystery. There is barely enough actual plot here to sustain an hour and a half let alone the nearly two and a half hours the film takes to get nowhere in particular. The middle of the film is given over to a series of submarine escapades that would have already felt familiar at the time from The Enemy Below and have been bettered since in countless submarine films. From deep dives to furiously leaking compartments, there isn’t anything particularly new here.

When we finally arrive at the polar base, there is finally some decent mystery – as well as a haunting atmosphere – as the characters explore the badly damaged base and its traumatised residents (You can see how this film influenced John Carpenter as he directed The Thing). Sadly, what the film hasn’t managed to do up to this point is make us care at all about any of the characters. Rock Hudson, never a particularly inspiring performer, makes a dry and unengaging lead (first choice Gregory Peck would have made the world of difference). Patrick McGoohan does his best as the mysterious British agent, but the character is so lightly written that you never really feel particularly intrigued by his mystery. Ernest Borgnine chews the scenery as the ex-Pat Soviet while Jim Brown is serviceable as the marine captain. Virtually no other character makes any real impact.

The film culminates eventually in a confusing stand-off between the Americans and the Soviets, until the villains reveal themselves and a détente that doesn’t end up destroying the world is revealed. That’s about the sum total of interest the film can spark. Other than that, it’s slow pace, unengaging characters, uninvolving plot and unoriginal action make it a great deal of fuss about nothing in particular. Howard Hughes may have wanted to watch it a hundred times. You probably won’t want to.

Ida (2014)

Agata Kulesza as a young Nun facing a crisis in engrossing Polish film Ida

Director: Paweł Pawlikowski

Cast: Agata Kulesza (Wanda Gruz), Agata Trzebuchowska (Anna/Ida Lebenstein), Dawid Ogrodnik (Lis), Adam Szyszkowski (Feliks Skiba), Jerzy Trela (Szymon Skiba), Joanna Kulig (Singer)

We are lucky. Growing up in a Western country, free of conquest and suppression, we don’t have the past weighing on every breath and step of our lives. But travel to other parts of Europe and you will find that the past is as unspokenly present in every moment as the present is, and that the two practically coexist side-by-side. Poland in the 1960s was such a country – a land so weighed down by the horrors it had seen throughout the century that there is no need for them to be given a name.

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young novice nun told by her prioress that before she can take her vows she must meet with her aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), a last surviving relative she had never even heard of until that day. Visiting Wanda, Anna is shocked to discover that Anna’s real name is Ida and that she is the daughter of Jewish parents murdered during the Second World War. Wanda, a resistance fighter during the war, later became a feared State Prosecutor but is now a judge struggling with unspoken guilt and succumbing frequently to alcoholism and one-night stands. Together Wanda and Ida travel to try and trace what exactly happened to Ida’s parents – discovering profound truths about themselves and their country as they travel.

Pawlikowski, a Polish director who grew up in London, directs his first Polish language film – and I think it’s fair to say he has produced a small-scale masterpiece here. Shot in beautiful black-and-white – a sublime choice for the chilling weight of the past that hangs over every shot of this film – Pawlikowski’s film is a lean, trim, perfectly weighted 78 minutes that covers more thematic depth and richness than films three times its length. It’s done with a beautifully low-key, quiet power that gives you plenty to richly mull over.

Its genius is capturing the weight of the past and the impact that it has at both a personal and a national level. So traumatic is the past of Poland that words like Holocaust and Stalinism need not be mentioned – over the course of a decade, millions of Poles (many of them Jews) were killed by Nazis, Soviet police and other Poles. This is a country lying deep in a post-traumatic haze, guilt, fear and sorrow the base below many social interactions. Pawlikowski captures all this beautifully, the oppressive gloom of sadness lying across every single frame. 

There is no demand for retribution and apology – and the one moment of guilty confession is beautifully underplayed and affecting for its relative lack of reaction from the witnesses – and the past is not expressed as an evil secret. Rather, people – good and bad – are shown as just people, many of them acting out of fear, or for what they felt was best, or ignorance. There is no easy viciousness and evil in the past, just the sad facts of life. The film’s atmosphere is coated in the horrors of the past, but lives roundly in the present. There are few – if any – dramatic moments of tears, recriminations and accusations. Instead the pressure of the past is met with sad, reflective shame and weary acceptance of the impossibility of going back.

Every shot is carefully chosen to reflect this theme. Pawlikowski frequently shoots Ida and Wanda just off centre of the frame, or even low down in the frame, allowing much of the shot to frequently be filled with the architecture and nature of Poland – much of both, rundown, crumbling, cold and bleak. The old “academy” ratio of 4:3 works perfectly for this look, old-fashioned but also boxed in. Not a single shot is wasted or overlong, and each of them serves a perfect purpose. Pawlikowski uses the structure of the road movie to serve itself as a semi-voyage into the past of Poland, as well as brilliantly allowing for the emotional expansion of its lead characters.

Both these leads are beautifully played by the two leads. Agata Trzebuchowska, a non-actor (now a journalist and film director herself) was plucked from almost nowhere in the Polish film industry to play Ida (she accepted due to her love for Pawlikowski’s film My Summer of Love) and she is perfectly suited to the role, investing Ida with a certainty from the start that slowly adapts and adjusts as she learns more and more about both her own past and her country’s. 

Agata Kulesza is extraordinarily good as Wanda, whose intense feelings of guilt at the many mistakes she feels were made in her past consume every thought, but who presents to the world a bullish confidence and freedom of expression. Her underlying vulnerability is what allows Ida in – and what will fundamentally change her outlook on the world, and both give expression to and dominate her melancholy.

Both these characters are shifted and changed forever by their joint exploration of the seemingly simple facts of their background – and the idea of continuing life in a world after this seems impossible. But Pawlikowski’s film doesn’t seem without hope. There is another generation coming to Poland – represented by a jazz band, led by Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a hitchhiker they pick up – and for these, the past seems just that. It’s not an everyday presence that haunts their decisions, or hangs over their life, and for this generation coming “life as usual” seems not a burden but an accepted fact. Is this a good or a bad thing? Maybe both, but it at least shows that that the country has some hope of moving on and forging a future even while the scars of the past remain.

Rocky IV (1985)

Sly Stallone takes on the towering Dolph in Cold War ending boxing fable Rocky IV

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Cast: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Talia Shire (Adrian Balboa), Burt Young (Paulie Pennino), Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed), Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago), Brigitte Nielsen (Ludmilla Drago), Tony Burton (“Duke” Evers), Michael Pataki (Nicolai Koloff)

By 1985, Rocky Balboa had come from behind to overcome adversity through sheer willpower no fewer than three times. We’d seen him come from obscurity to fight Apollo Creed, lose his money, fight Creed again, win, get shamed in the ring and lose his belt and trainer on the same night, then come storming back to beat Mr T. We’d had training montages aplenty as, for every major fight, Rocky needed to learn how to box in a new way. We’d seen him take punishment like nobody’s business in the ring as better opponents pummelled him before coming up against Rocky’s iron will. So in Rocky IV we got… well, more or less exactly all that. Again. But in Russia.

The ideas had gone, the inspiration had tanked. There was nothing new to do. Rocky IV is a very short film – and it could easily be shorter again if the padding had been removed. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) takes on Russian uber-fighter Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in the ring in a charity match. Drago is a mountain of Soviet athletic engineering and he beats Creed so badly, Creed dies. In Rocky’s arms of course. So Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) does what a man has to do – he’ll fly to Siberia and he’ll fight Drago on his own turf, all to avenge the memory of Creed. And for American pride. And along the way he’ll only go and get the Russians to rethink this whole Cold War thing.

Rocky IV is so painfully short of ideas, you’ll feel like you’ve seen it even before you’ve seen it. In fact, at least 10 minutes of it you have. The film opens with essentially a complete recap of Rocky III, including the closing scenes of that film. Later Rocky goes driving to the airport. Along the way he hits the radio in his Lamborghini (the product placement in this film is shockingly crude) and listens to the whole of No Easy Way Out by Robert Tepper, while the film plays a montage that recaps all three of the previous films. The scene might as well end with the title of the song appearing in the bottom left hand corner like an old MTV video. (Stallone’s rolodex was obviously well thumbed, as James Brown later pops up to deliver a rendition of the whole of Living in America.) This sort of stuff pads the plot absurdly.

Either side of that, we have two long training montages comparing the homespun honesty of Rocky’s training with the naughty, doping inspired, technological training of Drago. But then this is not a subtle film. Any film that opens with two boxing gloves – one American, one Soviet – flying towards each other and exploding isn’t exactly pulling its punches on the subtlety front. The political commentary in the film is laughably naïve, from Creed’s inane chatter about American pride, to the laughable depiction of the Soviet officials as distant Bond villains, to Rocky’s closing speech after his victory (spoilers) with its infamous “If I can change, you can change!” refrain. Did the makers think they were putting a hammer to the Berlin Wall here or something?

Most of the rest of the film moves between padding and the bizarre. Almost every single scene ends with a freeze frame, possibly one of the most clunky visual devices you could hope to see. Stallone as director focuses his camera with such loving intensity on his own chiselled frame that it’s almost a sort of camp classic. Some of the conversation and physicality between Creed and Rocky is almost laughable in its inadvertent homoeroticism. 

Then there is plenty of dumb stuff as well. I’d totally forgotten this film showpieces a robot servant whom Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) spends most the film treating like a hen-pecking wife. This robot is a bizarre sci-fi addition to the story, which seems to have walked in from a different film.

The fighting when it comes is pretty good, I’ll give it that. Yes literally everything in the boxing ring is so predictable you could write it down in advance, but as always there is something quite moving about watching Rocky take such punishment to emerge as victor. Heck even the Soviet crowd start chanting his name (take that Cold War!). But it’s fine. Drago isn’t even a character (he doesn’t even really have any lines), but that doesn’t really matter as its Lundgren’s size and strength that sells the show (he towers over famously titchy Stallone).

Rocky IV is predictable hokum, that offers precisely zero surprises and must have taken a wet weekend to write. Its bizarre robot sub plot, matched with the endless music videos, montages and flashbacks to old movies, shows that the well was pretty much dry by the time this film came around. But you know the formula still sorta works, and you still cheer as Rocky turns an epic pummelling into triumph. Carl Weathers is pretty good, Creed’s death is as strangely affecting as it is totally ludicrous (never in a million years, by the way, would either of the fights in this film be allowed to continue) but Rocky IV’s okay. And of course it ended the Cold War.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance find common ground in the Cold War in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks (James B Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Sebastian Koch (Wolfgang Vogel), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers), Scott Shepherd (CIA Agent Hoffman), Billy Magnussen (Doug Forrester), Jesse Plemons (Joe Murphy), Dakin Matthews (Judge Mortimer W Byers)

Steven Spielberg is perhaps best known for his cult block busters – and has indeed directed some of the finest popular adventure movies you are likely to see. But more of his output – particularly in recent years – is focused on intelligent, slightly old-school, handsome, period films that look to shed light on political and social issues of the past. Bridge of Spies falls firmly into this camp, an extremely well-made (if rather dry at times) prestige picture, blessed with a fascinating story and some very fine performances.

In 1957, Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in New York and put on trial. He’s the most unpopular man in America – except perhaps for the man plucked from a list of New York attorneys to defend him, James B Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan doesn’t endear himself to the American public by successfully defending Abel from the death penalty, but he’s proved right when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over the USSR, and a prisoner exchange is set up for Abel and Powers, with Donovan negotiating the details in a wintery Berlin.

Bridge of Spies has an old-fashioned charm to it – you can totally imagine it popping up on a bank holiday afternoon. It’s what you might call “grown-up entertainment” in the sense that it tells a character-focused story. It’s made with an unfussy assurance that never allows its cinematic excellence to get flashy, and it patiently unfolds an intriguing character study that gives excellent opportunities to some gifted actors. 

It’s also got a vein of wit running through it – you can see the fingerprints of the Coen brothers, brought in to do a polish of the script. They are there in the touches of the absurd as Donovan goes behind the Iron Curtain, mixing with an eccentric group of East Germans pretending to Abel’s family. Their also there in the moments of chill around the East German forces who suppress freedom and endanger lives. But it’s brought to life because Spielberg is such a wonderful, vibrant director.

Spielberg knows where to bring the flash and where to settle and let the camera watch the actors at work. Despite the calm of the general shooting, the film is packed with some wonderful sequences of bravura film-making, told so skilfully and with enough confidence that they don’t need to draw attention to themselves with overly flashy camera work or editing. But sequences such as the one that begins the film with Abel unknowingly being followed through New York, or Powers’ U-2 flight being shot down, or a horrified Donovan watching luckless Germans try to climb the Berlin Wall while he rides a train expelling him from East Germany, are made with a confident, unflashy flair.

It’s a film which has a real understanding of the paranoia and knee-jerk prejudice of the Cold War (on both sides of the curtain, but particularly in America), that mixes this with a note of hope in the essential decency of those on the ground – Roger Ebert described it as like a John Le Carre if it had been directed by Frank Capra – and that’s a good description. Spielberg’s film casts Donovan as the “little guy” who has to do the right thing and struggle to be accepted by his fellow Americans. Donovan’s travails in East Berlin have a Capra-ish quality to them, as his straight-shooting decency and integrity come up against the oblique games and half-truths of professional diplomats and spies. Abel as well is basically a solid, stand-up guy with a very clear moral compass and a dry wit that points out the quirks of both American and Soviet systems.

Tom Hanks is perfect casting as Donovan. He’s much overlooked as a great actor, and Donovan plays to his strengths, using all his integrity and trustworthiness to great effect. His Donovan is an honest broker, a man who believes above all in the cause of justice and has a good-natured confidence that allows him to never be flummoxed or even to show too much impatience with those putting obstacles in his way, even as he works overtime to get his way. It’s a perfect Hanks part played by perfection.

The film also boasts an excellent, Oscar-winning, performance by Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Embracing the movies for the first time, Rylance could probably play Abel standing on his head, and this acting heavyweight turns in a performance full of sparkle and wit. Rylance is softly spoken, with a combination of world-weariness, wry humour and a dry unreadability. Abel however is also a fiercely loyal and decent man – and it’s the contrast and bond that develops between him and Donovan that powers the movie.

In fact you can’t help but miss him in the second half, interesting as Donovan’s patiently done and labyrinthine negotiations between the KGB, Stasi and CIA become. At times this second half becomes slightly drier than the rest – as if Spielberg can’t quite manage to keep the sense of intimidation and danger in place for the whole of these protracted scenes of bluff and double bluff. It’s also probably a fraction too long. It’s not a perfect movie after all – Donovan’s family are a series of bland identities (“Honey stop trying to end the Cold War and come to bed”) and the film’s final coda of Donovan getting the approval of the American people on contrasting train rides is a little too trite in its “ain’t freedom great” tone.

But I really like Bridge of Spies. It’s calm, it’s assured, it’s very well made, it’s very well acted. There is a lot of quality on show here – it practically drips off the show – and it’s made by a director who knows he doesn’t need to wrestle your attention with every shot to keep it. Spielberg is a director so talented that he can excel at making intelligent, grown-up movies that have something for everyone. For all that it’s slightly overlong and can’t quite keep its momentum up, I really like it.