From Red Planet suspense to Cold War chill

From Red Planet suspense to Cold War chill

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November movies are a reminder of what the medium of film can be. My wife and I recently saw “The Martian” and “Bridge of Spies.”

These two new films offer viewers a chance to think, instead of just reacting to exploding robots or people with sudden super powers.

“The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, is about how astronaut Mark Watney, who is stuck on Mars, tries to communicate with people worlds away and to survive until a rescue mission can return for him. Oh, come on, people if you’ve seen even one preview, you know that much. Anyway, Damon doesn’t spend the entire movie flexing his muscles, shooting guns and running away from would-be assassins — he reserves those actions for the series of Bourne films. He figures out how to use the limited resources on Mars to survive. While it’s difficult to blend the possibilities of real science with an explanation of what he’s doing to an audience that might not follow everything, the film does an excellent job keeping up the suspense while giving us a Martian MacGyver.

Damon’s portrayal, and the reaction of his body to an extended stay alone on Mars, is compelling. At one point, he describes how he has to ration his food, going from eating three meals a day to eating one meal every three days. By flipping back and forth from Earth to an Ares capsule to Mars, the movie keeps the action, suspense and drama going without turning the movie into a one-man show. The scenes with the staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were especially satisfying, offering a look at some of the ways the hardworking analysts, engineers and scientists on Earth make it possible for humans — and satellites — to perform extraordinary tasks.

The scene shifts from the work Watney is doing on Mars to the tireless efforts of the JPL staff make it clear how much science like this is a team effort. As an aside, several scientists on Long Island have worked at a range of NASA facilities, developing technology for use on Mars rovers or working to understand the effects of extended exposure to radiation on the human body.

Meanwhile back in the late 1950s in “Bridge of Spies,” Brooklyn lawyer Jim Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, is assigned the unenviable task of defending Russian spy Rudolf Abel. The film captures the clash of duty to our country that surged through the ranks of attorneys, police officers and judges, with a duty to our Constitution which had — and often still has — a much more challenging set of rules to follow.

Donovan takes risks by defending Abel. The movie doesn’t address what secrets Abel might have been revealing, and it doesn’t need to. What it does offer, however, is a compassionate look at a soldier in a war for information during a period of heightened tension between two countries capable of destroying the world.

Portraying Abel, Mark Rylance, a stage actor who was won three Tony Awards, steals the movie. His subtle and nuanced portrayal of Abel as a prisoner of war is captivating. The audience can see how Donovan might have made the transition from doing his duty and ensuring a legal defense for this spy to feeling a greater responsibility for a man who was a devoted soldier, albeit in a war against his own country.

The characters, performances and situations in “The Martian” and “Bridge of Spies” stay with the viewers well after walking out of the theaters. Too bad Oscar voting season doesn’t come more often in a year.