An unshowy Steven Spielberg does a master's job with Cold War tensions, honoring a real-life attorney's victory over fear.
Gifts of civility small and large mark Steven Spielberg's latest film, a deeply satisfying Cold War spy thriller that feels more subdued than usual for the director—even more so than 2012's philosophical Lincoln—but one that shapes up expertly into a John Le Carré–style nail-biter. In a knockout near-wordless intro, a long-faced canvas painter (Mark Rylance, magnetic) finishes an oil in his 1957 Brooklyn apartment, makes his way to the park, picks up a secret nickel under a bench containing a tiny folded document, and eventually gets nabbed by feds on his tail. He's Rudolf Abel, the real-life Soviet spy charged with espionage. But the decent, often feisty man at the film's center is James Donovan (Tom Hanks), the lawyer who, at great risk to his family, defended Abel's life as a matter of due process and integrity.
One could be forgiven for finding this early stretch a touch Costnerian: Apart from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's blooming windows, it doesn't quite feel like a Spielberg film until a burning American spy plane plunges past its parachuting pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). He's about to become a Russian prisoner and a pawn in a secret trade that the government hopes Donovan will broker in a wintry Berlin split by the Wall: Abel for Powers.
The verbal gamesmanship brings on a new, energized movie, beginning with Hanks's charming Donovan, slightly amused in his Irish crankiness, even as his fancy overcoat is stolen by German teens ("You know—spy stuff" is his explanation for the missing garment). Hanks has never seemed more like a modern Jimmy Stewart, drink in hand, just looking to get home to his bed, as the script leans into its cavalcade of slightly bizarre negotiations with Eastern European goons. (The signature of the Coen brothers, who did rewrites, is hard to miss.) Bridge of Spies does end up on a bridge of spies, but never mind its more literal moments: Getting to its humane climax of coolheaded diplomacy is, paradoxically, Spielberg's most wily and adult journey since Catch Me If You Can.
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Bridge of Spies, a Second Look
Flash back to the late fifty's and early sixty's, Bridge of Spies, brought back faint memories. Steven Spielberg's film about cold war intrigue, the capture of accused Soviet spy Rudolf Able and the downing of U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, is a vivid history lesson and an absorbing drama. The degree that the film captures your interest is remarkable considering that the outcome is not a mystery. I believe that the films success is three fold. First the exceptional screenplay written by Matt Chapman and the Coen brothers. Second, by the acting chops of Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. Mr. Rylance is particularly brilliant in his understated performance of Able. Third, the films director, Steven Spielberg, continues in his ability to produce a tightly acted riveting drama.
There are additional stories, the negotiated release of American student Frederic Pryor, of which I was unaware, the interesting conflict between the East Germans and their Soviet masters, and the treatment of James Donovan after his initial defense of Able. The backstory of Donovan's defense of Able, and the sad state of the American justice system, at that time, is particularly riveting. We had just been through the McCarthy era in the fifty's and vestiges of its impact are still apparent in the films unwinding.
Of particular interest to New Yorkers would be the location filming that was done in Brooklyn and Queens. With few exceptions, the subway trains running during Able's flight from the FBI, the accuracy was excellent. The street settings were reminiscent of the Coen brothers " Inside LLewyn Davis" . I was fortunate to have been passing through the Village when that film was being shot and seeing all the vintage cars and extras brought back memories of being a student at NYU.
If you haven't seen Bridge of Spies, see it. The old saw, " those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." is very true. During this election year a great many of the candidates are prying on peoples primitive fears with hateful invective, half truths, and outright lies. Let the buyer beware.