Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies is the new Steven Spielberg film, co-written by the Coen Brothers with an assist from history. It's a very satisfying entertainment that demonstrates Spielberg can still do several familiar things well. There are set pieces brought off with great skill, like the opening sequence in which a group of FBI agents pursue Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) through the New York subway system of 1957. The immersion in the period is complete thanks to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and the design team, and a set of broadly humanist values is affirmed with neither cloying nor sentiment. That last achievement is due in large measure to the performance of Tom Hanks as James Donovan, the Brooklyn insurance lawyer assigned to Abel's defense after the FBI charges him as a Soviet spy. Donovan, a family man whose wife (tart Amy Ryan) is nervous about the Abel case, believes there are grounds to challenge Abel's arrest, but the judge (Dakin Matthews) isn't buying it and the CIA (personified by Scott Shepherd's Agent Hoffman) expects Donovan to agree not to try too hard.

James Donovan is a terrific role for Tom Hanks. The script conceives of Donovan as man grounded in decency, determined to do his job despite public disapproval and the displeasure of his boss (Alan Alda). "Every person matters" is Donovan's credo, and driven by that idea Donovan convinces the court not to impose the death penalty on Abel. Hanks is allowed to use his natural earnestness and good nature to great effect, both in scenes with Abel (whom Mark Rylance underplays marvelously) and with Donovan's family. Bridge of Spies is strongest when it views the Cold War as a series of moving parts. Donovan argues that a living Abel could be traded for a potential American captured on Russian soil, and early on the film cuts away from Abel to tell the parallel story of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Powers was the U-2 spy plane pilot shot down in Soviet skies and convicted in a show trial, and Donovan is asked by CIA director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Powers and his fellow pilots aren't individualized too much, and that choice serves the film's idea that all the characters have jobs to do against the larger political backdrop. At the same time more could have been done to differentiate Powers from Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a graduate student detained in East Berlin whom Donovan also wants to bring home over the CIA's objections. 

The last section of Bridge of Spies involves a series of meetings in a divided Berlin, with Donovan shuttling between Soviets and Germans who present a series of competing agendas. The most Coen-like moment of the film occurs here, when Donovan meets a loud collection of Abel's "relatives", but again these scenes are really a testament to the keen ability and presence of Tom Hanks. Donovan, stricken by a Berlin cold in a great humanizing touch,  is warned by Agent Hoffman that he must present himself to the Soviets as acting independently. Hanks makes Donovan both shrewd and scared, and the script doesn't gloss over just how much improvisation was involved in his mission. Bridge of Spies ends with Donovan back home and on the train. He sees some children climbing a fence, a shot that alludes to something he saw in Berlin. The sight seems to disturb him, and the moment goes to heart of the film's message. People aren't the problem, but rather the walls that keep us apart. 

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