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Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Bridge of Spies" Richly Produced, for Thinking Adults

"Bridge of Spies" is a big-budget, beautifully produced movie that is unabashedly geared toward thinking adults. There are no nods to fanboys who need to see "part four" after a title or a comic book superhero in tights to commit to a film. If you go to movies for fast-paced fight scenes, explosions or strippers, stay home.

"Bridge of Spies" is an historical drama about the Cold War. It's based on real events. Insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is pressured by colleagues to defend Russian spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), who has been caught in 1957 Brooklyn. It's his patriotic duty, they tell him, to provide the accused with counsel, even though the accused is a Russian spy at the height of the Cold War. Donovan does such a good job defending an unappealing client that he is later selected to help negotiate the release of downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. No, this isn't the most scintillating of plots. Most scenes consist of men over fifty wearing suits conversing in cagey language and subdued voices about big, big issues.

Lavish spending by gifted costumers, set directors and cinematographers is all over the screen. The interior of a middle-class American home in the 1950s-1960s era is beautifully recreated, right down to the divided aluminum foil trays for TV dinners. It would be hard for a male to watch this film and not feel serious fedora envy. Women may yearn for the day when a woman could single-handedly prepare a five course meal for an intact family that eats together in a formal dining room, and yet appear at that dining table looking like a Vogue cover model with cinched waist, pointy assets, firm hair and bright lipstick. And then mom, dad, and the kids hold hands and say grace, and no one looks at their cell phone, or even the TV. They all pay attention to each other.

As soon as the camera moves from the United States to East Berlin, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski drains almost all color from his images, the way Dracula drained blood from his victims. The sky is dead white, without clouds or sun, and almost everything you see is the lifeless gray concrete of the Berlin Wall or the charred gray of remaining bombed out buildings. People dress in gray wool; their grim faces are the only vague smudge of color. East Berliners attempting to escape are shot by snipers in watchtowers. It's a totalitarian nightmare.

When Donovan enters East Berlin to negotiate Powers' release, he enters an absurd maze of petty manipulations and espionage that would be laughable were it not so deadly. These scenes are reminiscent of the depiction of the state apparatus of petty terror in real Eastern European films like Andrzej Wajda's "Man of Marble." Russian actor Mikhail Gorevoy as Ivan Schischkin, a Russian negotiator, is simply a weird and scary looking and sounding man. He wonderfully channels Peter Lorre.

We all know, love and trust Hanks so much that there is not as much tension in the film as there ought to be. We know he's going to do the right thing, in spite of every obstacle, temptation, threat or sneer from a stranger on a train who recognizes him from a newspaper photograph. Somehow "A Man for All Seasons," as many times as I've seen it, gives me the sense that maybe, just maybe, this time Paul Scofield's Thomas More will figure out a way to compromise with Henry VIII's demands and not be decapitated. That tension that maybe Donovan will weaken or sell out or be even slightly less than utterly heroic is missing from "Bridge of Spies." Spielberg wanted an uncomplicated hero, and he has created one.

Mark Rylance gives an amazing performance as Russian spy Rudolph Abel. Rylance is apparently a highly celebrated British stage actor but I'd never heard of him. Rylance does virtually nothing noticeable except tuck his chin into his neck and elevate his eyebrows, yet he is riveting, moving, and memorable. Now that's acting!

Abel was just one of the spy's many aliases. His real name was Vilyam "Willie" Genrikhovich Fisher. He was of German-Jewish ancestry. Did that play any role in his dedication to Communism? He had lived during the Holocaust. Did Communism offer the only brighter tomorrow in which he could believe? It would have made his life so much better if he had defected to the West, rather than go to prison. Why did he not? The film offers no clue.

"Bridge of Spies" recreates for the viewer the undercurrent of daily fear during the Cold War. Schoolchildren cry during a school "duck and cover" presentation. A boy fills his bathtub with water so as to be prepared for nuclear attack. What was missing for me was what each side offered: an articulation of capitalism v communism. Perhaps the film could have included scenes where Donovan and Abel present their respective systems, their promises and flaws. There are reasons the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, and came down in 1989, reasons that seem to elude the supporters of US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

As it is, there is a marvelous scene where Donovan tells Hoffman, a CIA agent who looks a bit like Bobby Fischer (another pawn in the Cold War) what makes an American an American – the Constitution. 


  1. The "marvelous scene" is enough to make me want to see it. Thank you for the synopsis!

  2. I just saw Bridge of Spies and really enjoyed your review. I agree, Mark Rylance's performance was incredible. He also appeared as Thomas Cromwell in the 2015 mini series Wolf Hall.