Monday, October 26, 2015
Historians have chronicled the events during the intervening fifty-three years in director Steven Spielberg’s gripping Cold War thriller “Bridge of Spies” (**** OUT OF ****), so little comes as a complete surprise. Despite the conspicuous absence of suspense, this lavishly produced, persuasively acted, and thoroughly engrossing film remains utterly captivating. Working from a screenplay by Matt Charman, rewritten by Joel and Ethan Cohen of “Fargo” fame, Spielberg makes largely minor departures from the actual occurrences as they unfolded and recreates history with nimble spontaneity. (The theft of the hero's overcoat is an example of fabrication. According to the real James Donovan, who wrote about these events in his book "Strangers on a Bridge," he caught a cold from the drafty room that he slept in in West Berlin.) Tom Hanks plays the congenial central character in this literate chess game of international espionage that opens with the arrest of a Soviet spy in America and culminates on a lonely Berlin bridge at dawn with rival world superpowers swapping the spy for captured U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Spielberg doesn’t squander a second in this atmospheric narrative and shoehorns a plethora of action into 135 minutes without resorting to glamorous heroics and gratuitous pyrotechnics. Everybody always raves about the magnitude of story above all else, and “Bridge of Spies” exemplifies why a good, solid story—even one that has been well-documented in the international press at the time—can still yield an immensely satisfying film. Each character stands out dramatically and each has been etched with sympathy so we are concerned about their welfare even though everything is a foregone conclusion. At the heart of the matter, “Bridge of Spies” qualifies as a credible, bona fide “Mission Impossible” when you consider all the variables that the unseen hand of history brought to the table. What makes it doubly interesting is that only a singular incident like this could have ushered these individuals to each other’s company.
“Bridge of Spies” unfolds with the FBI arresting Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance of “Prospero's Books”) in Brooklyn during 1957. Abel had maintained a low-profile as one of the top Soviet spies in America. Masquerading as an artist, he was able to collect information without calling attention to himself. The Soviets relied on what are known as dead letter mail boxes. Information could be stashed and retrieved, without it being apparent to most people, in innocuous places. Abel sat on a bench one day to paint a picture of a bridge. As he adjusted his easel, he felt under the bench and found a hollowed coin containing a coded message. Later, after the Feds raided his studio apartment, Abel destroyed the message under their noses while they ransacked his premises for incriminating evidence. At this point, Brooklyn insurance claims attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks of “Forrest Gump”) enters the arena. The law firm where he is a partner informs him that the New York Bar Association wants him to serve as Abel’s pro-bono counsel so nobody can impugn American justice. Mind you, everybody but Donovan considers Abel’s conviction a foregone conclusion. Of course, he concedes he has been chosen to defend the most hated man in America. “Everyone will hate me,” Donovan laments, “but at least I’ll lose.” Neither Donovan’s wife, Mary (Amy Ryan of “Capote”), nor his children share his idealistic, high-flown principles. Nevertheless, Donovan goes into court swinging with everything that he has, and he discovers the deck has been stacked against him. Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews of “Thirteen Days”) refuses to grant Donovan adequate time to prepare Abel’s defense. Later, when Donovan advises Byers that the FBI had no search warrant so all the evidence should be banned, the judge ignores him. Inevitably, despite his noble efforts, Donovan cannot clear Abel. Later, Donovan visits the judge at his honor’s residence and persuades the crusty old jurist to display some good ole American compassion and sentence the Soviet to prison rather than the electric chair. “If we send this guy to his death,” Donovan opines, “we leave ourselves wide open. No policy in our back pocket for when the storm comes.” Byers heeds Donovan’s sage wisdom despite frenzied public opinion that greets him during his verdict.
In the meantime, the CIA recruits U.S.A.F. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell of “Whiplash”) to fly a high altitude jet to conduct aerial reconnaissance over the U.S.S.R. During his first flight for the CIA designated ‘Operation Grand Slam’ on May 1, 1960, Powers encounters trouble. A Soviet surface-to-air missile cripples Power’s plane. His canopy cracks open, and he is swept out onto the fuselage, dangling from the umbilical cord of his air hose. Despite his best efforts to destroy his U2 plane, Powers can reach the destruct switch. This qualifies as the most suspenseful moment in “Bridge of Spies.” As he deploys his chute, Powers narrowly avoids being struck by the debris of his falling plane. Of course, the Soviet capture Powers, convict him as a spy, and sentence him to three years in prison and seven more at hard labor.. Not long afterward, Donovan receives a letter from the Soviets and finds himself flying to Berlin as a private citizen to arrange a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers. Donovan gets the royal runaround from the Soviets as well as the East Berlin authorities with their conflicting political agendas. Nonetheless, he proves himself to be a shrewd man with a bargain, and he pits the Soviets against East Berlin. Ultimately, he never gives ground during these tense negotiations. The catch is he must negotiate between the superpowers as a private individual. Read Donovan’s insightful memoir “Strangers on the Bridge,” and you’ll have a new appreciation for this wily attorney. Another excellent book to read about this incident is Giles Whittell’s informative “Bridge of Spies,” which doesn’t appear in the credits as the source for Spielberg’s movie.
Hanks brings an ingratiating ‘aw shucks’ Jimmy Stewart charm to his portrayal of Donovan. Literally, “Bridge of Spies” could be seen as “Mr. Smith Goes to Berlin.” Hanks looks like a paunchy, unassuming figure without a clue, but he emerges as the sharpest tack in the box. Donovan’s history is pretty amazing when you think about what he accomplished. Meantime, Mark Rylance distinguishes himself as the enigmatic Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and he overshadows Hanks with a ‘less is more’ performance. Repeatedly, Donovan makes comments about Abel’s apparent lack of anxiety. Facing certain death, the imperturbable Abel refuses to let the pressure affect him. “Would it help?” he queries Donovan to worry about his fate. Austin Stowell reminded me of cub reporter Jimmy Olsen from the 1950s’ “Superman” TV show. He epitomizes the wholesome, clean-cut, square-jawed, but ambitious American who refused to commit suicide and struggled to make the best of a dreadful predicament.
Spielberg does an admirable job of condensing and cross-cutting these events. Budgeted at $40 million, “Bridge of Spies” looks authentic with its multiple period locations in American and Europe. Indisputably, “Bridge of Spies” couldn’t have been made during the Cold War because objectivity would have been severely compromised. Spielberg’s historical reenactment is relevant because contemporary American democracy faces similar challenges.