Category Archives: Cold War

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Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) 3.73/5 (8)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.1
Genre: Drama, Satire
Duration: 102 mins
Director: Mike Nichols
Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Mike Nichols turns his prodigious talent for satire to Aaron Sorkin’s clever adaptation of the true story of a Texas congressman’s attempts to secure the covert military funding that would ultimately tip the balance of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tom Hanks as the unorthadox good-time politician and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his irreverent CIA adviser form one of the best on-screen partnerships in recent decades as they bat Sorkin’s indignantly funny dialogue back and forth while Julia Roberts and Any Adams help to fill out the support roster intelligently rising to the spirit of Sorkin and Nichols’ storytelling as they go. The movie that unfolds is a delight of sardonic wit in both its writing and directing but, in typical Mike Nichols fashion, it effortlessly doubles as an engrossing political drama by perceptibly accounting for geo-political implications and character development alike. Sorkin’s feisty screenplay zips along at its usual pace but Nichols knows exactly when to channel that momentum or temporarily contain it so that its energy is maintained without dumbing down the drama. Unsurprisingly, Wilson comes out smelling like roses but only because Hanks and co. know exactly how to turn those warts into beauty spots and so, like the man himself, Charlie Wilson’s War charms its way into the audience’s hearts.

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Crimson Tide (1995) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.1
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Tony Scott
Stars: Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington, Viggo Mortensen

A cleverly scripted submarine thriller which pits Denzel Washington’s erudite by-the-book executive officer against Gene Hackman’s old school authoritarian captain in the midst of a nuclear missile crisis. Tony Scott brings his usual big, bold, and brash style to the action whether it comes in the form of the two command officers verbally tearing into one another or in the form of their supporters amongst the crew physically doing likewise. The set design is pitch perfect and complemented wonderfully by Scott’s trademark moody lighting. Sure, some of the key moments are rammed down out throats in a manner that works contrary to his aims but, for the most part, this is Scott at his most restrained. And with a cast like this, he could afford to be. Hackman is at his snarling best while Washington provides the ideal counterweight: cool, considered, and unflappable. What sets Crimson Tide apart from the glut of similar action thrillers, however, is its perceptively drawn screenplay which works simultaneously and figuratively to reflect the moral ambiguity and outright confusion of a nuclear standoff. From the smirkingly camouflaged conversations regarding the origin of Lipizzan horses to the more overt discussions of the Hiroshima bombing, Michael Schiffer’s adaptation of Richard P. Henrick’s story is strewn with logical land-mines and moral quicksand (word has it Quentin Tarantino was even brought in by his ardent fan Tony Scott to zest it up in places). So much so that by the time the credits roll, you’ll be reprimanding yourself for not giving Scott enough credit to begin with.

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Red Dawn (1984) 3/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 66.8
Genre: Action
Duration: 114 mins
Director: John Milius
Stars: Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson

John Milius’ uneven film has been criticised for being jingoistic and yes, there are some grounds for such criticism. There are also some spectaular leaps of logic and Harry Dean Stanton screams “Avenge me boys” without even a hint of humour. However, for the most part Red Dawn is actually a well orchestrated and even epic depiction of a fictitious invasion of the 1980’s United States by communist forces. Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen play two brothers who take to the mountains and form a rag-tag resistance behind enemy lines. It shouldn’t work but somehow this becomes an entertaining and sometimes touching examination of how life could’ve changed in such circumstances. Swayze and Sheen are charismatic in the lead roles and are supported by a number of young and, at the time, promising actors one of whom being Swayze’s future Dirty Dancing co-star Jennifer Grey. Milius’ and Kevin Reynolds’ screenplay can get clunky in parts but holds up for the majority of the film and there are some decent action scenes throughout.

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Stripes (1981)

 

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Rating: The Good – 68.9
Genre: Comedy
Duration: 106 mins
Director: Ivan Reitman
Stars: Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, John Candy

Bill Murray and Harold Ramis team up as two layabouts who join the army in order to get some discipline only to find it a lot more work than they had figured. Directed by Ivan Reitman, the humour is very much of its era with lots of wacky scenarios but there are still many laughs to be had here. Murray has been much better but even at half steam he’s still the funniest man on the screen. Ramis is a good foil for Murray but does well on his own also. Stripes is one of those films that is very easy to watch particularly if you’re already in a good mood so just sit back and let it happen.

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The Hunt for Red October (1990) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.8
Genre: Action, Thriller
Duration: 134 mins
Director: John McTiernan
Stars: Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn

John McTiernan was the undisputed daddy of action directors in the late 80′s to early 90′s and The Hunt for Red October shows exactly why. Set in 1984, the original adaptation of Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” novels has Alec Baldwin playing the CIA field analyst who gets wind of a new type of Soviet submarine (the “Red October”) and heads off to Washington to report his suspicions. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain a distinguished Soviet submarine commander Ramius (Sean Connery) ignores the orders of his superiors and takes the new submarine straight for US waters. Ryan is charged with determining if Ramius is intending to attack or defect before the US navy is forced to blow him out of the water. McTiernan doesn’t hang around and before you know it Ryan is being helicoptered onto an aircraft carrier in the middle of the stormy Atlantic and so begins a nail-biting adventure that traverses every corner of that ocean and involves some of the very best naval battles you could wish to see (kudos to legendary action cinematographer Jan DeBont). The tension is handled perfectly by McTiernan and the 134 minutes never lag nor get confusing even though the action is relentlessly switching between three different submarines, an aircraft carrier, a battle cruiser, sonar planes, helicopters, Moscow, and Washington. The impressive cast is uniformly superb and in addition to the excellent turns from the two leads, Scott Glenn, Sam Neil, and James Earl Jones do particularly well in supporting roles. However, the real star is McTiernan, who strikes the perfect balance between writing and action and in sequence after sequence uses the claustrophobic atmosphere to create a permeating tension. Just check out that cat-and-mouse scene wherein Bart Mancuso’s (Scott Glenn) US Dallas silently stalks the Red October as Ramius explains to his first officer (Neil) his perspective on the modern world. Timeless.

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Breach (2007) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.4
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 110 mins
Director: Billy Ray
Stars: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Dennis Haysbert

The real life case of former FBI agent Robert Hanson who in the 1980’s and 90’s committed the most damaging acts of treason in American history on behalf of the Soviet Union. Breach is a pensively weighted thriller that offers a mature and unromantic angle on the subject of espionage. Delving equally into Hanson’s private and professional life as a means to laying the infrastructure of an explanation for his actions, the film offers a bleak examination of one disturbed man’s psyche and the toll it places on the young agent whom the bureau charges with reporting on his daily movements.

Shot with a predominance of greys, blacks, and dark blues, director Billy Ray seems to go out of his way not only to capture the bleakness of the script but to also set as realistic and subjective a tone as possible. The drama is moved forward in an eminently patient manner so that the actors are entrusted with more responsibility than most dramatic thrillers. And when two of those actors are Chris Cooper and Laura Linney, that’s a safe bet. As one of the most talented actors of the last thirty years, Cooper produces a darkly textured performance on which the entire film hangs. Everything from the pacing to the set design seems to feed off the meticulous paranoia which he breathes into his character. He gets to the core of this complex personality by striking a believable balance between Hanson’s overt religiousness, his deep ridden insecurities, his hypocrisy, and his bitter contempt for what he sees as a lack of recognition in his career. Ryan Phillippe gives yet another impressive turn as the inexperienced and conflicted agent sent to spy on his movements while Linney helps to round off the central cast with her usual timing, insight, and overall professionalism.

For an almost wholly dialogue driven film, Ray and Adam Mazer’s script is impressively lean. There’s little in the way of superfluous dialogue nor are there any token moments of action crowbarred into the story. At times, this integrity places too much of a drag on the film’s momentum but the acting always comes to the rescue. For this reason, Breach is not to be misinterpreted as a traditional spy thriller and those looking for as much will probably be disappointed. But for those looking for an affecting drama with the edge of espionage and Cold War machinations, then Breach makes for compelling viewing.

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The Abyss (1989) 4.29/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.4
Genre: Science Fiction, Action
Duration: 139 mins
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn

The very definition of a concept film, The Abyss is a different animal to the average sci-fi flick. The story centres on an deep submersible drilling rig that is sequestered by the US Navy when one of their nuclear subs goes missing in a deep trench. Ed Harris plays the head tool-push who has to contend with a trigger happy SEAL unit as well as his pushy ex-wife played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio taking over his rig. The visual effects were spectacular at its time of release and are still hugely impressive while the underwater live action shots have never been equalled. The scale of the film’s production has become the stuff of legend given the giant underwater set that was built in an old missile silo and the extended dives the actors and crew (particularly director James Cameron) underwent to get the hugely impressive action sequences shot. Happily, Cameron gets it all up there on screen, making this one of the most uniquely impressive film experiences. The acting is top drawer for an action film with Harris, Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn (as the unhinged SEAL commander) all in terrific form. The ending borders on the fluffy (cliched ‘messages’ about world peace and all) as Cameron’s movies sometimes tend to do but one is compelled to forgive it given the earlier technical and dramatic achievements. There’s a somewhat interesting extended cut of this movie that adds nice touches to some of the characters but, given it also turns the volume up on the cheesier elements to the film, those who prefer their messages with a little more depth and finesse may want to give it a miss.

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Seven Days in May (1964) 4.75/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 86.7
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 118 mins
Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Martin Balsam

John Frankenheimer was a director of some renown but given the consistent quality of his work across a variety of genres and throughout five decades, he really should be better appreciated. That he made three of the very best films of the 1960’s in the space of three years is an emphatic testament to this. In 1962, he gave us perhaps the greatest Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, and two years later (right before he gave us The Train), he followed it up with one of the few films that could actually rival The Manchurian Candidate for that mantle.

Seven Days in May is a sweeping hair raiser that follows the efforts of the President of the United States, his closest advisors, and a Colonel in the Pentagon to investigate and expose a possible high-level military conspiracy, the aim of which, is to overthrow the government for its left wing stance on US-Soviet disarmament. That the conspiracy seems to be led by a people’s hero, a four star General with strong right wing tendencies and a megalomania complex, makes matters all the more tricky as the investigation requires negotiating their way through fanatically loyal military brass and equally right leaning members of Congress.

The plot (adapted from Fletcher Kneble and Charles W. Bailey II’s novel) is rich with intrigue and impeccably set up against Frankenheimer’s equally clean black and white canvas, a canvas that is further embellished with a luscious balancing of key and fill lighting. It’s speared forward primarily through its beefy dialogue which is strengthened all the more because a host of that era’s great scene-stealers are responsible for its delivery. Kirk Douglas is his usual mix of professionalism and presence as the honourable Colonel who cannot tolerate what he sees as an overreach by his superiors. Frederic March gets to the core of his character’s presidential predicament showing just enough strength and vulnerability. As you’d expect, Martin Balsam, Edmond O’Brien, and George Macready add substantially to the tone of the film as the presidents’ team who head out to investigate the different elements of the mystery.

However, it’s probably fair to say that Burt Lancaster’s power-mad General dominates this movie. Lancaster had an ability to be truly intimidating when he wanted, as his portrayal of J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success demonstrated, and the controlled menace he shows in this film is scintillating. If there’s one regret regarding his turn in Seven Days in May, it’s that he never got to share the screen with Ava Gardner again (his co-star from The Killers – his breakthrough movie which also starred O’Brien) who plays the jilted lover and potential threat to his reputation. In truth, the scope of the film doesn’t really allow for such an indulgence but cinephiles would’ve liked it!

There’s a controlled but persistent energy to this film as the action skips relentlessly and with a knife-edge like tension between the White House, The Pentagon, aircraft carriers, military bases, Congress, and dark alleys. The result is a movie that is the very definition of a thriller. Moreover, graced as it is with pure class from the acting, writing, directing, and Jerry Goldsmith’s low key but suitably paranoid score and that it also taps a subject that kept audiences of its time in a state of dull fear, it’s easily one of the most arresting thrillers too.

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2010: The Year We Made Contact (1984) 4.29/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 116 mins
Director: Peter Hyams
Stars: Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren

Though on paper this counts as a sequel to Kubrick’s masterpiece, the film is better served if the audience treats it as a stand alone straight-shooting sci-fi. As the latter, this film stands up quite well compared to most space-based science-fiction. It tells a compelling story of a joint US-Soviet mission to Jupiter to investigate a strange mysterious monolith orbiting one of the planet’s moons that may or may not have caused a previous mission to fail and leave the derelict ship adrift. The fact that the new mission is taking place against a backdrop of political instability between the two super-powers strains diplomatic relations between the on-board astronauts and scientists resulting in a climate of distrust. Veteran sci-fi director Peter Hyams (he who gave us the excellent Outland) does a beautiful job with the look of the film (he also took on DP duties) and the special effects are striking even to this day. The acting is first rate with the always great Roy Scheider providing a strong lead and John Lithgow, Bob Balaban, and Helen Mirren all doing well in support. However, operating in the shadow of 2001: A Space Odyssey was never going to be easy and while Hyams is technically adept he (like everyone else) was never going to be able to match Kubrick in terms of his vision. His only real mistake was that he gave it a go and as a result we get a pretty ham-fisted message-laden ending which the film could’ve done without. Minus that ending, however, and this is an excellent film.

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Dr. Strangelove (1964) 4.65/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 91.1
Genre: War, Satire
Duration: 95 mins
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room.” The grand-daddy of all satires, Dr. Strangelove began as a serious project about the Cold War but Stanley Kubrick found the whole thing so ludicrous he felt it needed to be told as farce. And farce is what we get, the best kind. Sterling Hayden is the mad general who orders his B-52 attack wing to drop their nuclear payload on Soviet targets knowing they will immediately go radio-silent thereby precluding anyone from recalling them. George C. Scott is utterly superb as General Buck Turgidson who is charged by the President with coming up with a plan to avoid all out war with the Russians but who seems more concerned with the Russian ambassador being let into the war-room where he can see “the big board”. Towering above even that performance however, is the imperious Peter Sellers as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the man himself, Dr. Strangelove. It’s difficult to decide which persona is his funniest right up until the final scene when the Dr. just simply nails it.

The script is as sharp and subtly clever as they come with plenty of overt humour thrown in for good measure. Kubrick’s eye was never better and the wide shots of the war room and of the B-52’s making their approach have become some of the most iconic in history. However, it was his ability to know when and where to use the various shots, scenes, and dialogues which makes the progression of the film so funny. In that he achieved that rarity in comedic film-making in that his ‘direction’ was as funny as the words on the page and the actors who uttered them. It all builds up to that most seminal of endings of course and who after seeing this has ever forgotten Slim Pickens’ exit from that zany yet all-too real world which Kubrick presented us with.

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Thirteen Days (2000) 3.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Duration: 145 mins
Director: Roger Donaldson
Stars: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Shawn Driscoll

After delivering the goods with No Way Out, Kevin Costner and director Roger Donaldson teamed up again for this dramatic account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And once again their partnership proved successful as Thirteen Days is a riveting account of the crisis told with all the tension and scope necessary to imbue the audience with the feeling of what it was like to live through those terrifying days. Costner is superb as White House Chief of Staff Kenny O’Donnell, while Donaldson’s direction paints a broad canvas as the action moves seamlessly from the pentagon to the White House to the Atlantic to Cuba. The decision to incorporate real-life footage of the troop mobilisations also paid off in that it adds greatly to the authenticity without disrupting the flow of the film. It was also a brave move to tell the story from the perspective of O’Donnell and although some claim that his role was overstated, on close examination of the film, it can be appreciated that writer David Self is not really attributing any major decisions to him. Instead, O’Donnell is used as a more tempered counterpoint to the Kennedy brothers (excellently played by Bruce Greenwood as JFK and Steven Culp as RFK) as the three characters are forced time and time again into a battle of wits not only with Russians but with their own sabre-rattling Generals. Thirteen Days is a rare triumph in the thriller stakes for a 21st Century Hollywood movie and while the subject matter inevitably helped this, it’s the skill of the principals behind and in front of the camera and their co-ordination with each other that really gives this film its electricity.

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962) 4.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.5
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Duration: 126 mins
Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh

John Frankenheimer’s magnum opus is a thoroughly captivating story as well as a genuine classic. The plot was of its time but the execution of that plot way ahead of it. Old “Blue Eyes” Frank Sinatra plays the army major who returns from the Korean War with strange recurrent nightmares and an inexplicable liking for one of his subordinates who he always found decidedly dislikeable. Lawrence Harvey is that soldier, Raymond Shaw, who hails from a wealthy family dominated by his ruthless mother who will stop at nothing to install her puppet husband as vice president of the country.

Sinatra is every bit the star of the show and his natural charisma ties you to the film. Harvey is excellent as the ill-tempered yet vulnerable Shaw and Angela Lansbury is terrific as his dangerous mother. Janet Leigh is unusually inserted into the story from a fascinating angle which remains quite bluntly unexplained (it’s hinted that she may have a previous history with Sinatra’s character either professional, personal, or other). However, this lack of resolution doesn’t hurt the film in any way and if anything, it adds to the overall strangeness which the movie feeds off.

The Manchurian Candidate (based on Richard Condon’s novel) says much about the then recent McCarthy hearings and it’s all especially insightful. The conditioning aspect to the film is reasonably well rooted in the science but naturally has to take some giant leaps into hugely improbable territory. Frankenheimer’s direction comes into its own during the conditioning scenes as he uses long dream-like pan shots and off-camera dialogue to expertly convey the conceptual sterility of the dastardly Dr. Yen Lo’s (played with relish by Khigh Dhiegh) methodical manipulations. This gives the sequences a cruel soullessness which facilitates some of the creepiest and downright shocking moments we’ve seen on film. And on top of all that there’s one of the earliest American movie ‘kung-fu’ fights which builds wonderfully on Spencer Tracy’s explosive introduction in Bad Day at Black Rock. Unmissable.

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