Bridge of Spies

Lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is talking to FBI Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd).

FBI Agent Hoffman: We need to know what the Russian was telling you. Don’t go all boy scout on me. We don’t have a rule book here…
James Donovan: I’m Irish, and you’re German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing… one, only one. The rule book . We call it The Constitution, and we agree to the rules. And that’s what makes us Americans. It’s all that makes us Americans, so don’t tell me there’s no rule book…and don’t nod at me like that, you sonuvabitch…

Yeah, Tom Hanks is back!

Once a upon a time, the American film going public were represented by actor Jimmy Stewart, truly an actor for the ages, as our Everyman. He not only portrayed us on-screen, he was us – through and through. At the same time that Stewart was flourishing, there was Gregory Peck who was not quite an everyman. He was taller than most, and surely more handsome than most of us, so instead of being another everyman actor, he was the man who almost every man, who watched movies, wanted to be.

In today’s world – Tom Hanks slots almost perfectly between a Jimmy Stewart and a Gregory Peck. And never has this been more evident than in the just opened and latest film from Steven Spielberg – Bridge of Spies.

The film has its beginning in 1957. It was a time when we lived in a paranoid world of nuclear posturing, saber-rattling, and geo-political brinkmanship. We were both fearful and hateful of Russia and we were not surprised to learn that Russian spies might be anywhere in our midst if not everywhere. Each of the top two super-powers, in 1957, not only mistrusted each other, or feared each other, but each did everything they could to spy on the other country.

Back then, we were a world without computers, smart or mobile phones, and other electronic surveillance devices that are taken for granted these days. Operatives practicing espionage operated on the ground, door to door so to speak, or from spy planes flying at an altitude of 70,000 feet above the earth.

We were not at war in the conventional sense of the word, but a war was underway, only in this war, there was no storming of beachheads, no hand-to-hand combat, no bombs being dropped, and no weapons were being fired – this was not a hot war. As we hear in the film, this war is not about men-at-arms, it is about information. So we knew it as, and called it The Cold War, and this where Bridge of Spies takes place

The film opens with a man we don’t know painting his own portrait. While I wasn’t able to find a still or a capture from that scene – we have a famous Norman Rockwell painting to serve instead. Rockwell called this work Triple Self Portrait,

and this is exactly how we first meet Spielberg’s character, Rudolph Abel. Later we will see Abel, in a more spy-like bit of action. He is about to extract a hidden message from a nickel that he picked up at a dead drop.

Shortly after, we find that the FBI is on Abel’s trail, and though he manages to avoid capture during a tense subway platform scene, he’s followed to his home and later arrested.

He will be charged and then tried as Russian spy. Tom Hanks is asked by his boss (Alan Alda who had been asked by the government, and the Bar Association to ‘convince’ Donovan) to act as Abel’s defense attorney. Though initially unwilling, Donovan agrees.

The case is tried, Abel is convicted and sentenced (to 30 years in jail), and though the case is appealed to the US Supreme Court, Abel stays in jail. A few years go by and defense contractors have developed the top-secret spy plane, the U2, which had the capability of flying at an altitude of 70,000 feet above earth while utilizing the then state-of-the-art cameras.

Pilot Francis Gary Powers, while flying over Soviet airspace in one of these planes is shot down, and captured. The US wants him back, and while Prisoner Rudolph Abel has given away no Russian state secrets – we know that, but the Russians don’t. The thinking is that the Russians will want their guy back before he cracks.

Allen W. Dulles, who served as Secretary of State for Eisenhower, as well as being the first civilian Director of the CIA, thought they might be able to get Powers back via an exchange of prisoner/spies.

That's actor Peter McRobbie on the left as Dulles, and the actual Allen W. Dulles on the right

That’s actor Peter McRobbie on the left as Dulles, and the actual Allen W. Dulles on the right

Donovan is called in by Dulles and basically is given the job to fly to East Berlin and handle the negotiations. As usual, the instructions were – if things go south – don’t call us, we won’t be able to help.

That’s plenty of set-up for you I think. Spielberg, who has been and is the pre-eminent American film director has been known to make historical films, that is besides Scifi, thrillers, family dramas, and adventures. Spielberg has always been a student of film making and homages and tributes are not something that Spielberg avoids.

Following in the foot steps of Leo McCarey, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, and Preston Sturges – Spielberg can be described as a populist film maker, and we can add – of the highest order to that.

This film is his 55th directorial effort and his first feature was called Duel. It came out in 1971. That  was 45 years ago and that is a long time, so Spielberg has been doing plenty right.

As we watch, the Berlin Wall is being built

As we watch, the Berlin Wall is being built

We can count Bridge of Spies as a success too. While this film won’t even come close to breaking into a Spielberg top 10 list – it is an excellent work and has plenty to shout about. This is a film that is more character driven, at least as far as James Donovan (Hanks).

If there is a bit of something to complain about – it is that the rest of the cast, including Mark Rylance as Rudolph Abel are all given relatively short shrift. Having said that, I will also state that one of the true joys of watching a Spielberg film comes from paying attention to the attention to details.

And by that I mean the casting of all of the smaller roles. Like the Russian KGB spymaster who posed as an embassy official,

or the the American judge,

or Vogel the East German negotiator, all the way down to the obstreperous spectators in the New York Federal courtroom, or the angry New Yorkers who gave Donovan the evil eye on the subway.

After all, If Abel was the most hated man in America, then surely Donovan was the second most hated. And this was made abundantly clear.

I also liked the school kids in the American schools. All of those kids were taught and had to live with a Doomsday scenario.

I wonder if the Pledge of Allegiance is still recited to begin the school days now.

While the film is mostly talk – in the form of attorney/client discussions. defending a client in court, negotiations to achieve the swap of prisoners – Spielberg and his writers – Mark Charman and the Coen Brothers, have crafted a smart and often witty script.

I didn’t expect to laugh during this film – but there were some laugh-out-load moments. Of course these moments were enhanced by the humanity written for the Russian spy Abel, who’s actor Mark Rylance stole every one of his scenes except for the last one.

That's Abel's indctment paperwork that has just been tossed toward Donovan. Donovan: I don't know f I want to pick this up...

That’s Abel’s indictment paperwork that has just been tossed toward Donovan.
Donovan: I don’t know f I want to pick this up…

Hanks as Donovan was simply superb.

Donovan performs for The Supremes...

Donovan performs for The Supremes…

While Hanks has-been popular for a long time, this performance can certainly be described as adding more luster to his career. In the short clip up top – just watch what Hanks does with his hands, and watch his nuanced creativity in playing an insurance lawyer that we can actually root for.

As Donovan would say early in the film while acknowledging that insurance company lawyers are often reviled – If we didn’t win cases, then there wouldn’t be any insurance companies.

The film is entertaining, far from preachy, and has enough high moments and a bevy of performances, to basically over come its main flaw. Bridges of Spies seemingly is two films – the one about Donovan defending and the trying to achieve a prisoner swap. But the negotiations for the prisoner swap was the film’s weakest point as Francis Gary Powers and Frederick Pryor – the Americans held and charged by the Russians and the East Germans, are barely developed at all.

While Donovan is negotiating for their releases – we hardly see them. So time is taken up in the service of getting the swap done – we can’t or don’t have a sustainable rooting interest for Powers and Pryor as we don’t know these men.

But that’s it for the downside. You may disagree if you are hoping for a bit more tension and excitement as conveyed by the trailer. Which is not quite the case. So even if I say that Act One and Act Three were superb, and Act Two wasn’t, I’ll still give this fine Spielberg effort a four point zero on the one-to-five scale.

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