When Brilliant Filmmakers Play Safe
Looking back from the eighties to the present day, one trend is obvious – the great directors who emerged then have all have all got fat and rich – and dull. Robert Zemeckis, whose every film I loved right from Used Cars to Death Becomes Her and the Back To The Future trilogy has made The Walk, about the French acrobat Philippe Petit and his 1974 wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre. But while the film is never quite boring its first half is horribly cheesy, from scenes in an accordion-filled Paris where he meets-cute with his girl (they mime being trapped in a glass box together) to the undeniably exciting but painfully overused 3D CGI climax in which Petit walks the rope again – and again. It comes with a poke-in-the-eye coda about the Twin Towers representing indomitable spirit.
Then there’s Steven Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies, a slow, hammy wallow into more true events – this time cold-war history for the story of an insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan, who became the unlikely go-between in a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Soviet governments in 1957, managing the release of downed US spy Francis Gary Powers. This tension-free plod comes complete with a catchphrase (said three times in case we’re slow to pick up on it) and a horrible self-congratulatory coda.
Few of us dared to mention the same coda problem with the otherwise pitch-perfect Schindler’s List. It seems to be a Hollywood issue created by the need for closure and affirmation, reaching its nadir when Oliver Stone critic-proofed World Trade Center by bringing a New York firefighter over to do chat shows. We know that The Third Man’s original coda (Martin and Anna leaving arm in arm) would have damaged the film. Imagine All The President’s Men with a congratulatory back-slapping scene after its shot of two men quietly typing and you see the scale of the problem.
These are unsettled times, and everyone is playing it very, very safe, retreating into the past or rewriting true events into feel-good fodder. Ron Howard’s Heart Of The Sea is an underwhelming retelling of Moby Dick, complete with buckets of CGI, to no avail. Other films like Jurassic World and Terminator: Genesys play like kiddie-friendly greatest hits packages, and the thought of more Star Wars films suggests to me a very outstayed welcome that’s okay because at least they’re for children, who’ll love them.
But the point is that most of these are from once-great directors who’ve taken to candy-colouring everything until the sugar rots your brain. Only George Miller’s brilliant Mad Max fourquel pulled off a real change of tone.
Perhaps that’s the purpose of big cinema – you enjoy it most while you’re very young. But does it always have to be like that?