BRIDGE OF SPIES
Cold war prisoner exchange drama set in East Berlin, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Stephen Spielberg.
As one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Tom Hanks can pick and choose both when he wants to work and with whom. His track record as a producer is impressive, with Band Of Brothers, The Pacific and the outstanding Olive Kitteridge, but his acting career is peerless with Forrest Gump, Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile ranking as some of the most popular and critically acclaimed movies ever made.
Given the paucity of his output these days, when he does make a new picture purely as an actor it’s usually an “event movie” … which brings us nicely to Bridge Of Spies.
Right up there with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the downing of an American U2 spy plane in 1960 left the world on tenterhooks. Suddenly, we’d entered the space age almost overnight, with a secret aircraft that could fly at 70,000ft and take detailed pictures of an entire continent without anyone ever knowing it was there.
Or so we thought …
Gary Powers was one of the men entrusted to fly such a mission.
He was also instructed to destroy both the craft and himself should the worst happen, be it a mechanical fault or something more sinister. He was working for the CIA now, rather than the air force, and they did not want technological secrets falling behind the Iron Curtain either in the form of a salvageable wreck or locked in the brain of a surviving pilot.
At the same time, the Berlin wall was being erected as the GDR struggled to assert itself on the global stage, wrestling with both its neighbours, West Germany and the USSR. Nobody was taking them seriously: the Americans refused to recognise them as a state, while the Soviets left Berlin in ruins, preferring to focus on Moscow and the military.
Over in the US, the CIA had uncovered a man, Rudolph Abel, that they suspected was a Russian spy. He had a Scottish accent and a British passport, but readily admitted to being from Russia, despite not admitting anything else, nor co-operating with the authorities upon his arrest.
Enter insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan of Brooklyn, New York, tasked with defending Abel in order to show the world what the American justice system was all about.
It was an ostentatious game of one-upmanship with Abel a mere pawn as the superpowers flexed their muscles, each posing for the world’s media, trying to gain the upper hand as the “war” got ever colder.
Donovan was to provide a perfunctory defence of the spy – for it was already decided that’s what he was, trial or no – but no more. It was a showcase, a spectacle to prove how just and righteous the US legal system could be.
They only went and picked the wrong man.
Donovan was a principled liberal who defended the law itself above anyone or anything that threatened his idea of justice .. and that’s where the story gets interesting.
A self-deprecating, intelligent and engagingly charming man of more substance than appearances would suggest, Donovan grew into his new role as the face of the US government, despite having no such official title.
His time in Berlin only bolstered his resolve and as the story unfolds we see him blossom into far more of a diplomat than anyone with that job description could ever hope to be.
There’s a few more ingredients to stir into the pot : the hatred of a nation for defending a commie spy; the persecution of his family by a neighbourhood questioning his motives; a backdrop of McCarthyism and the hunt for “reds under bed”; the rising tension between the east and the west … and the small matter of an American student caught on the wrong side of the Berlin wall who now found himself in a Stasi prison.
The Americans have one Russian.
The Soviets have one American.
The East Germans also have one American.
Two into one doesn’t go.
Something’s gotta give.
Who’s gonna blink first : the CIA, the KGB, the Stasi .. or Jim Donovan ?
Bridge Of Spies is a masterpiece.
Spielberg’s direction and cinematography are flawless, with Berlin in particular looking frighteningly realistic – I’ve been to the Stasi museum and the visuals were perfect – while Hanks himself is on top form. Sometimes, he can almost under-act, in that he’s so much of a normal guy you barely notice he’s doing anything .. but then that’s the beauty of a good actor at the top of his game, I suppose. You forget it’s someone pretending and find yourself fully immersed in Donovan’s life.
You can tell he enjoyed making this picture too, because there’s a twinkle in his eye.
That’s partly because of his character’s own natural love of life – he’s a funny and witty guy – but also because he gets to develop an interesting real life character right before our very eyes, as Donovan digs in, sparring with just about everyone who tries to manipulate him and from every possible side. The only person not against him is the spy himself, Rudolph Abel, portrayed with just the right level of understatement by Mark Rylance, who you may remember from Wolf Hall. At first, it seems bizarre that the humour between the two is so open, so relaxed, but it is an aspect definitely played up here in the time they share together in various scenes throughout Bridge Of Spies.
The Coen brothers have done an outstanding job with the script and it bristles along nicely, with one-liners and satirical observations all the way through, but especially sending up the three agencies involved in the exchange.
The dialogue is bang on the money, sharp as a tack and genuinely believable. I’d love to think this is exactly how the real life story went down, but I’m sure most of the good bits are down to the creators of Fargo and O Brother.
I’ll stop there because you need to let the rest of the tale unfurl before your eyes, rather than through spoilers from me. If you know the history, you know what to expect, but whether you do or not, you’re in for a treat – Bridge Of Spies really is a superlative picture and a rare example of an American movie that doesn’t change history too much.
Just for a few extra laughs.
And that’s got to be alright with anyone, hasn’t it ?