Bridge of Spies Connects the Past with the Present

My favorite genre of movie has been the courtroom drama for as long as I can remember. Maybe it is the speech nerd in me who loves the oration of attorneys. Maybe it is because they tend to feature a cast of characters what with the accused, the attorneys, the judge, and the witnesses. Mostly though, they are remnants of an era of movie making that isn’t very commonplace anymore.

While TV is always littered with great courtroom dramas, the movies about lawyers are few and far between. They are rarely prestige pictures like A Few Good Men or Philadelphia. Instead, they are decidedly B-movies like The Lincoln Lawyer or TheJudge.

Possibly my least favorite genre besides boxing movies is spy movies. James Bond always struck me as inept. How can you be a good spy if everyone knows who you are?

So, I went into Bridge of Spies with high hopes but tempered expectations, as I didn’t know how much it would be spy thriller and how much it would be a spy movie.

Turns out, it is neither. It is a thriller in the vein of the greatest Alfred Hitchcock movies, except the stakes are not just a man running for his life, they are about international relations and the tight rope its protagonist James Donovan (Tom Hanks) must walk in order to avoid nuclear holocaust.

In other words, it is exactly the type of movie I yearn for these days and is in extraordinarily short supply. The movie is accessible yet important, entertaining, yet well-made, and packed to the brim with incredible performances about flawed people trying to navigate very Frank Capra-like questions about whether or not to do what is right or what is easy.

Invoking Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg means the inevitable Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart comparisons are inevitable, but this really is exactly the sort of moralistic everyman Stewart would play. As Hanks walks the streets in the 1950s period garb, it is essentially effortless to picture Jimmy Stewart in the role. Considering it has tones of Stewarts two most notable collaborators, Capra and Hitchcock, there is really no person better for the role than Hanks who is, as expected, spectacular.

What is surprising though is that the real scene stealer of this movie is stage actor Mark Rylance, who plays the accused spy Hanks’ attorney character is defending. His subtle mannerisms seem far too small for an actor who cultivated his craft on the stage, but everything that is remarkable about this performance is what is unsaid; what is conveyed in the raise of an eyebrow or a labored sigh. If I had to say which aspect of this film, which should hopefully be nominated for scads and scads of awards, was most likely to bag an Oscar, it would have to be Rylance as Best Supporting Actor in a career-defining performance.

Lately, the Oscars have been all about nostalgia. The Artist, which took home tons of gold men in 2010, is an overt ode to old Hollywood and the way things used to be, as was fellow nominee Hugo. Even Argo is about the thrillers of the 1970s and an era of filmmaking long gone.

This year, the inevitable nostalgia nom seems to be primed to go to perennial Academy favorites Spielberg, Hanks, and co-screenwriters the Coen Brothers, though I wonder if the forthcoming Hail, Caesar!, also penned by the Coens, might split the vote. Maybe both will be drowned in accolades and the studios will realize more people like me are desperate for adult entertainment with no comic book heroes or drug traffickers or, most imperatively, boxers (I mean seriously, Southpaw and Creed in the same season? Enough with the damned boxing movies).  Currently, Bridge of Spies has raked in around $35 million dollars and, as Mark Harris noted on Twitter, this movie is holding strong so far and I envision it could be one of those Thanksgiving films you go and see because it is something everyone can agree on. I hope that is the case.

Really, I only had one criticism of the film, which is its somewhat bombastic use of musical score, which is par for the course when it comes to Spielberg. I always pardon his tendency to schmaltz though, mostly because I am not getting schmaltz from anywhere else except the Hallmark Channel. So, I can only hope this movie, which like its protagonist opts to do what is hard rather than what is popular, is rewarded for not turning this into some Bourne-like action movie. It assumes the audience can be just as thrilled with a small movie about the potential end of the world, and what makes all the more remarkable is that it really happened, this man really did save us from a potential apocalypse and he did it with words and actions, not with guns and explosions. If only other movies could take notice of this “standing man” who may seem inconsequential at first glance, but in actuality is really rather remarkable.

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Something Corporate When You’re Blue

You know people are around the same age as me when they can recall with exceptional clarity the first time they heard Something Corporate’s Konstantine.  A lot of people have grown out of that band and the music of its front man turned solo act Andrew McMahon, but I have spent the entirety of my adult life following his career.

Even though this obsession with a musician stands at around 15 years and counting, for one reason or another, I have never had the opportunity to see him perform live until this past weekend. All of my other college favs—Ben Folds, Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional—I’ve found one way or another to see them live, but he was the missing piece of the puzzle.

A guy who lived on my dorm floor freshman year introduced the whole floor to Something Corporate early in our first semester at USC. I started with Cavanaugh Park, but by the time I finished college, I had every song the band had ever put out.  The band pops up a lot in our college stories, like the time my friend and I got lost on our way to Burbank. She was sad about a guy and I introduced her to one of the less popular SoCo tracks, Walking By. She made us listen to it on a loop for the 40 minutes I was driving around in my all-back car, burning under the California sun, unable to figure out where we were going.

You would think that would be enough to make me hate the song forever, but it is still one of my all-time favorites that gets auto played on repeat just like Jamie did whenever I have to deal with rejection. As the years went on, there tended to be a song for everything. Trudging to my first post-college job every day, I would blare I’m Ready as I rolled over Laurel Canyon, barely moving in the morning traffic. When I needed a solo dance party, it was (Hurricane) The Formal Weather Pattern. The blare it in the car and sing it with your friends was Drunk Girl.

And then there was my bad day song, Swim.

There are a lot of great moments I will never forget from my first Andrew McMahon concert. He leapt off pianos, he sang a melodic cover of his own song, Punk Rock Princess. He told us how Cecilia and the Stars is an ode to his young daughter. He busted out one of those elementary school rainbow parachutes. And he explained what inspired him to write Swim.

McMahon readily admits he is truly privileged to be able to perform music for people as his job. I appreciate that he is grateful, but what I appreciate more is that he is willing to admit there were times he struggled. Just because you have achieved a certain amount of fame and success doesn’t mean life doesn’t suck from time to time. After all, he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after recording his first Jack’s Mannequin album, Everything in Transit. Thanks to a bone marrow transplant from his sister, he survived and I believe is in remission.

That didn’t mean having cancer wasn’t scary. It is also the inspiration behind Swim.

I really don’t know how I didn’t put two and two together, as the lyrics of Swim pretty accurately sums up what it is like dealing with cancer. Granted, I’ve never had cancer, so I could be wrong, but given how much I relate to this song as someone who has only watched friends and family deal with cancer, it seems pretty on the nose.

Here’s the thing about treating cancer—there simply aren’t that many things to get excited about because even the stuff that is supposed to help the patient hurts. To go through chemotherapy, you have to be in a mindset where you are mentally prepared and positive about basically pumping your body full of poison. And you do this with no guarantee that you will be cured. Best case scenario, you will feel pretty crappy for the entirety of your chemotherapy, then you get to stop some day and the cancer doesn’t come back. When that is the best case scenario, developing an attitude that you just need to get through it even if there is no sign things will change can be pretty useful.  As the song says, you, “swim for better days despite the absence of sun.”

There are plenty of people who approach dealing with their disease optimistically. That is great and I am glad it works for them, but for those who can’t convince themselves they are going to beat cancer or have been told they have no chance of beating it, but you can maybe buy yourself some time, being pessimistic isn’t so bad. It isn’t even all that pessimistic of an attitude in a situation like cancer. It is simply the reality of the situation that you need to accept in order to adjust your expectations accordingly. You learn to understand that most of this is going to suck. You accept that, you put your head down, and even though there are no indicators things might get better, you keep going not because you believe they will but because you have no other choice but to keep going or else you’ll drown.

And watching him perform this song, which has gotten me through many days where I had no indication tomorrow would be better, is one of those things I will appreciate for the next few years, if not the rest of my life. Even though Andrew McMahon can’t fix the sick or the causes behind your bad day, he can create something positive with his music. And that helps quite a bit on those days where you’re trying to swim and the tide’s too high. It is, pardon the play on words, a little Holiday From Real.

On my frustrating days, I try to plug on with my head down. It is something my mother taught us when we were younger. “Just hope tomorrow’s better,” she’d tell me.

What I found helped me feel better on those not so great days is reaching out to friends who have been having bad days too and try to make their tomorrow better. You could argue I do it for the karma, but I mostly do it to try and shift my attention from my own pity party. I know how much those flashes of sun on the overcast days help me so much, that I feel compelled to pay it forward.

What is great about Andrew McMahon concerts is that I can do something to help someone in a way that is so much more meaningful than a card or a quick text seeing if people are okay or need anything, as he has a station where you can sign up to be a bone marrow donor. One form and two swabs of the inside of my mouth and I was registered to possibly throw someone the life preserver and help make that swim more manageable. You can do the same thing even if you don’t ever make it to one of McMahon’s concerts.

You may not know anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer (though in this day and age that seems impossible), but know that being a bone marrow donor may result in a few bad and uncomfortable days for you, but it could be that light of the end of the tunnel for someone struggling to just keep swimming.

Losing the Will to Fight On

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I’ll be perfectly honest: I’m that USC football fan. You know, the one who firmly believes in the West Coast bias. The one who thinks running Pete Carroll out of town was a travesty. The one who will always remind you that our sanctions were basically threefold of an institution who purposefully covered up the fact there was a pedophile on the staff.

So, a day removed from the ESPN doc “Trojan War” and less than a week removed the firing of Steve Sarkisian, you may expect this blog to be a lot of bitching. Trust me, I can bitch endlessly about the 2006 Rose Bowl, a game so poorly officiated, the NCAA implemented coach’s challenges and revamped instant replay in its wake.  But I will also readily admit that blown calls are a part of football and we wouldn’t have even been in that game were it not for a blown call on the Bush Push.

Instead, I am here to talk about how ashamed I am of my alma mater and how it is handling the latest drama deflating the spirit of Troy. I’ve been a diehard USC fan since I got my acceptance letter in 2001, and this is the first time I am not proud to be part of the SC family.

The Steve Sarkisian situation deserves way harsher sanctions than Reggie Bush riding in a limo, but the crazy part is I don’t think we’ll be punished at all for it. And that only makes me more depressed about the NCAA and the USC Athletic Department.

I feel for Coach Sarkisian, as anyone handling a substance abuse problem is facing an uphill battle. I am sure he had no ill will or intent when it came to his actions this football season. Nonetheless, it was clear to AD Pat Haden and USC that something was wrong before the season even started. They can try to deny knowledge of his problems in the vetting process, but they cannot deny that as early as August they knew this person, whose job is to motivate, inspire, and educate young men, was not in a position to do so.

And they did nothing.

This is sadly not the first time one of my favorite teams hired someone completely ill-equipped to coach a high-profile sports team. I was sad when the University of Kentucky ditched Tubby Smith, for even though he played a very boring defensive-oriented approach to basketball and only posted modest results by UK standards (making it only to the Sweet 16 is modest in Bluegrass country), he was a role model. He clearly cared about his players. Instead, the university brought on Billy Gillispie, and the stories started leaking basically from the jump.

First, it was about Gillispie’s drinking. He had a house on the side of town I grew up in, and often I would see him at the bar of the popular steak house down the road. Most times he was visibly intoxicated, so rumors of the Lexington police following him home each night monitoring me were pretty easy to believe.

Then the stories started coming out about how he verbally and emotionally abused his players, most notably threatening to make a player he believed was faking an injury walk home instead of take the bus with the team. If you think that is an appropriate thing to do, you should not be employed by a higher education institution.

What really saddened me about Gillispie is that we as Big Blue Nation all knew this was happening and we didn’t demand he be fired the next day. The people of Kentucky needed their basketball so badly, we overlooked a situation in which the health and safety of the players we loved so much were legitimately in danger. We didn’t even fire him because he was a danger to the team. He got fired because he didn’t win enough. And that mentality really is inexcusable.

So you can yammer all you want about how Coach Calipari deserves to be sanctioned and that we allegedly pay our players. You can scoff when he said the goal was to get seven guys to the NBA this season. But guess what? That is his job. He is an educator who is trying to help young men transition into professional basketball and he takes that responsibility incredibly seriously. This year’s NBA Draft was an indication not that UK is a corrupt organization, but of the fact Coach Cal is a really effing good basketball coach who is incredibly dedicated to helping these players succeed both on and off the court.

Pete Carroll is the Calipari of football. He knows the system is broken and he gamed it to recruit amazing talent. Then he mentored that talent, checked on how they were doing on and off the field, taught them how to get drafted in the NFL, and helped them achieve their lifelong dreams. When I see how many former UK players and USC players Tweeting about their alma maters or communicating with their old coaches, I can’t see why we are claiming we don’t want people like this coaching college sports.

USC broke some rules, though how many we broke remains up for debate. To hold Carroll accountable for what one of his player’s parents were doing 200 miles away will always be insane to me. During Trojan War, the documentary mentions that Bush’s parents were months behind on rent. They couldn’t afford a place to live. If I’m a 20-year-old Reggie Bush, I’m helping my family find a place to live, sorry. I don’t believe Carroll or running backs coach Todd McNair knew about the house. They may have been willfully ignorant on the subject, which is against the rules and deserved some sort of punishment. Permanently disassociating Reggie Bush from the school, vacating 14 wins and a national title, a two-year postseason ban, and 30 lost scholarships was not that punishment though.

Once again, the NCAA has proven it cares very little about the welfare of their athletes. It isn’t right that Reggie’s #5 jersey doesn’t hang with the other Heisman winners at the Coliseum because he made some questionable decisions at the age of 20. I thankfully made plenty of dumb decisions when I was 20, but there wasn’t an onslaught of media constantly scrutinizing me. It wasn’t right of Mike Garrett, Pat Haden, and the USC Athletic Department to let a kid take the fall for them. They could’ve fought for Reggie, but they didn’t.

if you had told me all those punishments were for our university knowingly let Sarkisian run the team in the condition he was in, I would have no place to whine. It basically amounts to child endangerment and should be punished. I know it isn’t fair to the kids to punish them for their program not taking their welfare seriously, but I don’t know how else we convey that letting this kind of behavior go is not acceptable. The other problem is that the NCAA decisions on sanctions recently do nothing to reiterate that is the case. USC got the toughest sanctions in 20 years for questionable booster activity. Miami had to self-impose a postseason ban for two years because of financial gifts to a number of players that amounted to $2,000. Syracuse had 100+ wins vacated for grade shaving. And then PSU had one year of punishment for what many would call institutional cover up of someone who was a danger to any student in the football program with no formal investigation by the NCAA. So clearly, the NCAA has a priority problem.

If we are telling people who are really good at motivating and mentoring young athletes like John Calipari and Pete Carroll that we are not okay with them coaching, but we are okay with Billy Gillispie and Steve Sarkisian coaching, I just don’t know how much longer I can be a diehard fan. I will always want those SC student athletes to Fight On, but I don’t know if I can fight on as hard so long as Pat Haden refuses to put the players first.