Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review: Bridge of Spies

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios. 
There are two key shots that drive home the story of Steven Spielberg's gripping "Bridge of Spies," a true story about a tense negotiation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s.

The first shot opens the film - we see a man staring into a mirror as he paints himself on an easel set up in his small Brooklyn studio. The man, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), will soon be arrested by police and accused of acting as an undercover Russian spy. In this shot, we do not actually see Rylance head-on, but rather his reflection in the mirror and his face on the canvas. Abel is actually two men - a spy, but also the Irishman and average citizen he is pretending to be. Spielberg's film is filled with characters and situations in which being straightforward is often not an option.

The second shot is at the film's end after attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) has taken part in a negotiation during which he attempts to trade Abel, who is his client, with not only the Russians in exchange for a U.S. pilot whose plane was gunned down during a top secret mission, but also the East Germans, who have arrested an American student studying abroad on obviously false charges. At one point during his trip, Donovan is riding a train and spies a group of Germans attempting to flee East Germany and climb over the wall into the west, but are gunned down. One of the film's final shots is of Donovan, who is again riding a train, spotting a group of boys in New York running and climbing over a wall, but in play.

Donovan is a perfect role for Hanks, who has come to resemble filmdom's Everyman and for good reason. His characters are noble, but not stiff as many righteous movie characters tend to be in their upstandingness. Donovan is, for lack of a better phrase, a good man. He believes in justice and doing the right thing, even when it's not popular. And, in his case, it's certainly not.

Although he is a tax attorney, Donovan is asked by the U.S. government to represent Abel during his 1957 trial after he has been outed as a spy. The judge in the case clearly wants the trial over and done with as well as an easy conviction. Donovan, on the other hand, believes that everyone deserves a fair run in court and points out that while Abel is an enemy, he is not a traitor since he is not an American and that he has done right by his own country. Nevertheless, Donovan's work on the case earns him scolding looks from virtually everyone and a few bullet holes through the window of his home.

But after U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down during a reconnaissance mission over Russia, Donovan is brought on board to negotiate Abel's trade for Powers. Donovan also presses for the release of a student who has been arrested in East Germany, but the CIA isn't interested in the young man, primarily due to the fact that he is not equipped with top secret information. However, Donovan is determined to do what he believes is right.

Spielberg captures the look and feel of 1950s America without overdoing it and Hanks's character feels like an archetypal figure that Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart might have played during that time period. Hanks is excellent as Donovan and Rylance has deservedly sparked some Best Supporting Actor discussions for his work as Abel, who is pretty funny for a guy possibly facing a death sentence. His "would it help?" punchline that he continuously uses when Hanks questions whether he's nervous about his fate is a tip-off as to who co-wrote the film's screenplay - Joel and Ethan Coen.

Spielberg's oeuvre is primarily populated by two types of films - visually large-scale but narratively intimate fantasies ("E.T." or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and films that dramatize pivotal moments in history during the past two centuries - for example, "Lincoln," "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Munich." "Bridge of Spies" is an engrossing, occasionally thrilling and thoughtful Cold War drama that is anchored by some great performances, reliably terrific cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and the type of visual storytelling you'd expect from a great like Spielberg.

On occasion, critics have given the director flack for how handles the emotional content of his stories, but I think it speaks to his great talents that his films, "Bridge of Spies" for example, have both intellectual and emotional heft.

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