‘I’ ON CULTURE
I have been waiting for a really good movie for a long time — and who else but Steven Spielberg could provide it? Bridge of Spies is very good Spielberg film, not one of his greats, but extraordinarily good. It does not have the enjoyment quality of a Raiders of the Lost Arc or E.T., but is a gritty, excellent spy movie that celebrates the freedom of America without falling prey to the easy choice of knocking the country’s enemies.
The movie starts by following a quiet man in Brooklyn who is arrested by the FBI, Col. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian spy born in Britain. There is no doubt that he is a spy. The bar association chooses attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend him, and Donovan’s lead law partner Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) pushes him to provide a defense as a way of demonstrating American justice, although most of the lawyers, as well as the judge, only want the appearance of justice, rather than the real thing.
Spielberg and his writers, Matt Charman and brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, cleverly work in a secondary story focusing on spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who is shot down over Russia.
Donovan manages to keep Abel from being sentenced to death based heavily on the argument that we might be able to use him in a spy swap. And several years later, CIA Director Allen Dulles asks him to negotiate as a private citizen to exchange Abel for Powers. Essentially on his own, Donovan travels to East Berlin to try to make a deal. Complicating things, the East Germans (who are not wildly thrilled with the Russians making all the decisions for them) have just put up the Berlin Wall, trapping their people behind it. An American is picked up, and the East Germans want to trade him for the Russian spy. Donovan has to walk a fine line, knowing that the Americans would refuse that deal. Eventually, things do work out.
The film’s creators take an unflinching view of issues facing both Americans and the Communists. Americans are seen to be paranoid, unwilling to provide the kinds of restraints on prosecutors we are now used to seeing all over television, both in fiction and news shows. Of course, most of the legal decisions for those rights were made after the time frame. The depictions of East Berlin and the destruction of the hopes of the people there are shown as far more brutal. While there are threats against Donovan (and an ugly incident where someone shoots into his home), the violence against the people in the Communist land is far worse, and Spielberg does not shy away from showing it.
Hanks is superb in the leading role. He is meant to stand for the kind of decency and courage we hope to see in our leaders. His stand on the need for a fair trial and preserving the rights of everyone turns Donovan into a real hero. I was reminded of actors such as Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, who generally let decency show through all of their performances. Hanks presents Donovan as the man we all want to be.
Rylance, who is a huge star of the London stage, gives a bravura performance. There is no doubt that Abel is a spy. But Rylance manages to also make him a human being. He utters a wonderful line to Hanks’ Donovan, “I am not afraid to die, but it is not my first choice,” in a way that beautifully delineates the difference in thinking between the two men. When the two of them are together onscreen, they are magic.
The rest of the cast is also good, not surprising in a Spielberg film. Scott Shepherd was good as the shadowy CIA man Hoffman. I particularly liked Peter McRobbie as Dulles. His comments about how Donovan was just a private citizen were remarkable in demonstrating how the concept of deniability developed. Amy Ryan was good in a relatively unsympathetic role as Donovan’s wife.
This is very good Spielberg. It is easily the best movie I have seen so far this year, and, frankly, Hanks and Rylance are so good that we should be hearing about them at Oscar time.
Right now, I would have to rate it as the favorite for best film, and it would certainly deserve it more than the film that won last year. Of course, most top films come out near the end of the year, so we may have other really good movies, but Bridge of Spies is a real winner.