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Bridge of Spies

D: Steven Spielberg / 141m

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemons, Will Rogers, Michael Gaston, Dakin Matthews, Billy Magnussen, Peter McRobbie, Mikhail Gorevoy, Burghart Klaußner, Max Mauff

In 1957, Rudolf Abel (Rylance) was arrested by FBI agents and charged with three counts of conspiracy as a Soviet spy. He was defended by an insurance attorney called James B. Donovan (Hanks), but despite Donovan’s best efforts (and to no one’s surprise) Abel was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to a total of forty-five years in prison (which was a surprise). An appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected and Abel remained in jail.

In 1960, US pilot Francis Gary Powers (Stowell) was shot down while on a spy plane mission over Soviet territory. He was charged with espionage against the Soviet Union and sentenced to ten years in prison. In 1961, American economics student Frederic Pryor (Rogers) found himself arrested and held without charge by the East German police. In 1962, Donovan, at the request of CIA chief Allen Dulles (McRobbie), travelled to Berlin to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers; when he learned of Pryor’s incarceration he made the young student’s release a part of the deal as well. On 10 February 1962, Pryor was released at Checkpoint Charlie, and Abel and Powers’ exchange took place at the Glienicke Bridge.

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These are the basic facts that Bridge of Spies elects to tell, and while it makes it clear from the beginning that the movie is “inspired” by real events, writers Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen have expanded on those facts in order to fill in the gaps and make the movie more audience friendly. They’ve done a terrific job, with the politics of the time, both American and Soviet, explored and explained with a conciseness and brevity that allows the story to breathe and not be bogged down by endless exposition (there’s even room for a brief exposé of East German politics as well). What this means is that Bridge of Spies becomes a movie where all the twists and turns don’t leave the viewer baffled as to what’s going on, and they have a firm grounding as to why it’s all happening.

With the political and espionage themes so effectively set up and presented, Spielberg is left to get on with doing what he does best: telling a complex, complicated story easily and with surprising verve. The director seems at home when making historical dramas, and he has an enviable track record in the genre, from Empire of the Sun (1987) to Schindler’s List (1993) to Munich (2005) to Lincoln (2012). Spielberg is rightly regarded as a populist movie maker, but it’s his forays into history that often prove more satisfying, and Bridge of Spies is no different. Most of the “action” takes place behind closed doors, and consists generally of conversations between Donovan and one or two others. But it’s during these scenes that Spielberg teases out the subtleties and unspoken nuances of the various negotiations and political manoeuvrings, and makes them resonate in a way that few other directors are able to.

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As Donovan juggles the demands of his own government with the needs of the Soviet Union, and the aims of the newly created East German authorities, Spielberg shows how close everyone is in terms of not wanting to be seen to be directly involved in any of the negotiations – Donovan himself is officially a private citizen representing his client, Abel – and how appearances are more important than the truth. Donovan is seen as an honorable man doing the best he can, and as he sees fit, in difficult circumstances, and his early brushes with his own legal system (which seems happy to ignore due process and the Fourth Amendment when it comes to prosecuting Soviet spies) show just how determined and independent-minded he is; or, as Abel puts it, a “standing man”. Donovan provides the moral compass to help audiences steer their way through the various schemes and ruses that each side comes up with.

In the more than capable hands of Hanks, Donovan is an ordinary man thrust into the extraordinary world of legal and political expediency and asked to put aside his personal and moral beliefs. That he doesn’t, and that he doesn’t in such a way that he also doesn’t appear to be pedantic or judgmental (at least not publicly) is a measure of Hanks’ controlled portrayal and what’s needed to make Donovan both sympathetic and credible. Hanks is matched by an equally impressive performance from Rylance, his stoic features and polite bearing providing a neat counterpoint to the American public’s view of him as reprehensible and an enemy of the American way of life. At different points in the movie, Donovan asks Abel the same question but in different ways: “Aren’t you worried by what might happen to you?” And always he answers: “Would it help?” Rylance plays Abel quietly and with dignity, his awareness of his situation and the political games going on around him expressed with a resigned authority.

Spielberg recreates the period with his trademark exactitude, and aided by longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski highlights the differences between US and East German life by emphasising Powers’ homeland via warm tones and an ingrained sense of comfort, while recreating Berlin’s post-War identity as the still-blasted, partially rebuilt city it was. The contrast is illuminating, adding to Donovan’s initial feelings of unease as he navigates the treacherous waters of international diplomacy.

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It’s here though that the movie loses some of the traction it’s built up along the way. Abel’s arrest and subsequent trial, along with Donovan’s hampered attempts to defend him properly, are expertly handled by Spielberg, and if the movie had only been concerned with Abel’s case then it would be an unqualified success. But once Donovan arrives in Berlin, and despite the various obstacles that threaten to derail his negotiations with the Soviets and the East Germans, there’s no tension in these scenes. Donovan overcomes each obstacle by either refusing to accept the problem is worth worrying about, or by making demands in the hope that the other side will blink first. By making this stretch of the movie so “easy” for Donovan, by the time we get to the exchange at the Glienicke Bridge, there’s so little reason or chance for things to go wrong at the last minute that any apprehension on the audience’s part has evaporated long before.

It’s a shame as the scenes in Berlin should have provided most if not all of the movie’s dramatic highlights, but alas it’s not to be. There is humour however, with Donovan’s fish-out-of-water situation used to good effect, and it’s drily executed by Hanks and perfectly in keeping with Donovan’s increasingly weary view of the world (at one point he remarks that the full names of the Soviet Union and East Germany are just too long). Away from Donovan’s efforts to negotiate the exchange and Pryor’s release, there’s a powerful sequence that shows Powers’ U2 plane being shot down and just how lucky he was to survive (though the movie makes it clear he shouldn’t have), and we see the initial creation of the Berlin Wall, a sight that remains unnerving even now that it’s gone.

Rating: 8/10 – measured, patient and deceptively simple in its approach, Bridge of Spies lacks resonance in terms of what’s happening in the world today, but as an examination of a particular event in recent world history it’s still fascinating and informative; capped by another of Hanks’ effortless performances, and Spielberg’s mastery of the medium, it’s a movie that holds the attention throughout even if it isn’t particularly thrilling.