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It’s time for a Steven Spielberg history lesson.  Following a line of (based on) real life stories that includes Schindler’s List, Amistad, Munich and Lincoln, Spielberg brings us the days of the still-recent Cold War in Bridge of Spies.

James B. Donovan has a great life.  A nice, secure job as an insurance lawyer, a lovely wife, cute kids, and a big, gorgeous house in 1957 Brooklyn.  Another Brooklyn resident isn’t as fortunate.  Balding and middle-aged, Rudolph Abel’s preternaturally calm demeanour and love of painting would never betray the fact that he’s a Russian spy.  Having followed him around for some time, the FBI have got a pretty strong case against Abel, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to look to a watchful world like they’re railroading the undesirable alien.  It is important in this age of heightened international tensions to present a flawless show of American justice, even for this hated enemy.  This is where Donovan comes in.  

Approached for his credentials as an assistant in the Nuremberg trials, he has the proper bona fides to at least appear as if he’s giving Abel the best defence possible.  Donovan’s bosses don’t care if he plays tiddlywinks when he should be prepping for the case, so it’s an unpleasant surprise on both sides when the lawyer keeps pressing requests and objections to give the spy a fighting chance and the judge shoots every one down without a second thought, not bothering to pretend to be fair.  The very idea that any red-blooded American would lower themselves to defend the undefendable, turns the Donovan household upside down.  The sense of discomfort the attorney feels when fellow subway commuters give him the hairy eyeball over their morning papers, descends into terror as bullets are fired wantonly through the glass windows and doors of the Donovan home.  Growing to sympathise and even like the perpetually easygoing spy, Donovan cannot see Abel as being completely guilty, as opposed to having been a good soldier and followed the orders of his country, which is exactly what no one wants to hear.  Despite his unwavering conviction that he has done the right thing by defending the Russian to the best of his ability; the stain of doing what he was asked to do remains on Donovan’s name long after the trial is over and Abel is convicted.

At the same time, the country’s increasing paranoia requires better intelligence on what Mother Russia is up to, and so the U-2 spy plane, with its enormous mounted camera lenses is commissioned and an elite group of pilots recruited to fly them.  On his maiden voyage in the stealthy aircraft, Francis Gary Powers is shot down, and contrary to his orders as a liability, having witnessed way too many confidential state secrets, is taken alive by the Soviets.

Adding to the anti-communist furore, is the overnight construction of a concrete barrier, bifurcating the whole of Germany’s capital.  American student Frederic Pryor watches as the Berlin Wall is being built and sees the desperate race against the construction by families who do not wish to get caught behind the barricade.  Attempting to bring his girlfriend to the western side, Pryor is too late and finds himself arrested as a spy.

Lucky for the US government, James Donovan had the prescience to persuade the judge not to execute Abel as was expected, so they can now use him as a bargaining chip to get their valuable pilot back.  As the CIA cannot officially be seen to sanction negotiations with the Communists, Donovan agrees to go as a civilian, whose purpose can be denied if he fails.  Realising the burden is all his, Donovan makes a request of his CIA minders to also free the young student Pryor along with their pilot.  The condition is denied, but Donovan won’t take the word, “no” for an answer.  Dropped into the world of east-west politics, Donovan navigates through a maze of deception, diplomacy, false identities and double talk.  His improvisations when dealing with those in control over the captives puts the negotiations at risk and finds him in a prison cell at one power baron’s whim.  All the while, the reality of what the German people are facing never quite sinks in until he witnesses the tragic failure of a small group attempting to hoist themselves over the Berlin Wall in a hail of automatic fire.  Donovan becomes immobile in his resolution to see both American captives freed.

Bridge of Spies shows us an era that had much more influence on the world and its culture than many might realise.  The sense that the world was constantly on the verge of imminent nuclear destruction permeated the collective consciousness.  So much media of that time; literature, art, cinema, took in and manifested the fear and paranoia of the Cold War.  It is one of the most captivating aspects of this film that it shows its own homage to the movies that explored (and exploited) the anti-Communist terrors of that era, as well as adding in as a healthy dose of film noir.  Fascinating is the scene displaying what was at the time the state of the art in espionage equipment and its application in a very real battle against the planet’s two most powerful countries.  It takes the abstract sort of James Bond notion of spy fiction and shows where Ian Fleming, et al, got a lot of their fictitious ammunition. 

Bridge of Spies is also a gorgeous thing to watch.  Spielberg lets cinematographer Janusz Kaminski work his wonders:  Painting a Rockwellian portrait of the ideal 1950s nuclear family in the Donovan home, complete with Corningware and tin-foil TV Dinners,  Kaminsky then captures the lush, shiny saturated Brooklyn streets during a nighttime downpour, and gives us a flattened, washed-out palette of the new and newly-isolated East Germany.  Adding a bit of adrenalin to the earthbound drama, Spielberg throws in a heart-pounding sequence of the U-2 being shot down and brings us up close into Powers’ desperate struggle to right the plane and his split-second decision to keep himself alive.

As might be expected when the Coen Brothers are working on your script, Bridge of Spies’ real hook is in its wit, particularly when parleyed in scenes between Tom Hanks as Donovan and Tony-winner, Mark Rylance as the fatalistic Abel.  A running joke of the film occurs each time the lawyer marvels at the spy’s sang-froid, even when facing the electric chair.  “Don’t you ever worry?” “Would it help?”  Rylance quietly steals all the scenes he’s in and is missed for long periods, but Hanks gives one of his best performances in years as the duty-bound family man to whom “every person counts.”  Hanks is engaging and uses his mastery of everyman charm to the hit all the right notes as the American too determined to do the right thing to let a spot of bother like doing time in a communist prison deter him.

There are some small falters.  Spielberg asks us to care about what happens to the student Frederic Pryor, who, as we’re told, was a Princeton student; however, the circumstances around Pryor’s arrest are pretty ludicrous.  Pryor leisurely traverses the length of the Wall as it’s being built; calmly watching as citizens are bounding over the concrete blocks, fleeing for their lives, and then convinces his sweetie to run with him.  Their only available exit is shut before their eyes and instead of running to find another crossing (like everyone around them is doing), Pryor literally walks up to the German soldiers and allows them to question him.  Pryor alerts them that he is an American and when asked for his identification papers, instead produces his thesis about Communist economics, then seems surprised when the Communist soldiers arrest him as a spy.  Is Spielberg a Yale man?  My thought was, ‘Let them keep him. We don’t need that kind of brain trust here, we’ve got enough problems.’  Also, Donovan’s reason why he won’t give up Pryor’s inclusion in the prisoner trade is a classic example of Spielberg schmaltz; because the student is the same age as Donovan’s paralegal back in Brooklyn.  Oy… 

There’s also a hint of overplaying the fear back home as Spielberg shows us elementary school kids sobbing as they watch “Duck and Cover”-type films, teaching them that hiding under their desk was the best defence against a nuclear blast.  Maybe the kid was crying cos she knew that wasn’t going to save anything?

There’s not as much tension as one might hope once Donovan is in Berlin.  Outside of being mildly inconvenienced by a night in a German jail and being mugged for his expensive overcoat, there never seems to be sense of immediate danger to Donovan, which takes away some of the film’s gravity, when it’s all him running back and forth between the Soviet and East German liaisons.  The movie suffers because it’s done so well establishing the camaraderie between Donovan and Abel early on.  The chemistry that makes the proceedings sing in the first half, makes things slightly clunky with its absence in the second.  Still, as a Steven Spielberg history lesson, one presumes a lengthy film, and while clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, Bridge of Spies moves quickly even with the imbalance between acts.

Slight stumbles aside, Bridge of Spies is an artful portrait of a time in American life that is hard to imagine for those who were not around to experience it, but reverberates powerfully on modern screens.  Great performances by Hanks, Rylance, and the wonderful Amy Ryan as the fretful Mrs. Donovan, a sharp, savvy script and an energised Spielberg make Bridge of Spies one of his best in years.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Oct 16th, 2015

 

 

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