A brilliantly conceived period piece scripted stylishly and set during the Cold War between America and Russia when the Berlin Wall thankfully now down, was being constructed, director Steven Spielberg and his sterling lead actors Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance have created a red hot movie masterpiece.
Thrillingly staged with every frame, it is ravishingly designed to make us all feel the ‘cold’, an insightful piece of exceptionally fine film making. Spielberg masterfully reaffirms and demonstrates how important the precious liberties we all enjoy, and often take for granted are, especially when in the land of the ‘free’ the judge in a court of law forgets what real justice is all about.
The script was developed from a true-life swapping one spy for another story about an exchange that did take place on the ‘Bridge of Spies – the Glienecke bridge which spanned East and West Berlin during the state of political and military tension that grew up after WWII.
Set during a time when conspiracy to commit treason and to make shabby compromises with long-term political and moral implications was rife, award winning director Steven Spielberg digs deep to reveal two amazing men both of whom we can choose to have empathy with and-or sympathy for.
Spielberg is all about defining what decency means. What the effectiveness of personal freedom and liberty is really all about; the values and beliefs western civilisation, including America through its Constitution and Bill of Rights were founded upon.
Academy award winning actor Tom Hanks, with great assurance and quiet confidence, plays civilian lawyer James Donovan who likes to win. We discover he has left criminal law, when he was part of the prosecuting team at the Nuremberg Trials (1945-1946), behind him. Now he fills his days sorting through law issues surrounding insurance matters.
He’s also a family man with a comfortable home and enjoys the many benefits of modern living in post-war America during the 50’s and 60’s.
Suddenly an unexpected chain of events finds him chosen in 1957 by the team of well-connected legal men around him at his New York firm to defend a Russian man charged with spying an act that attempts to undermine the American way of life.
It’s a hard ask.
He will be taking on the defense of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a man it seems everyone in America following a widespread news campaign, not only believes is a spy but also has judged guilty before he goes to trial and that includes the judge.
Abel’s hallmark expressive line ‘would it help’ delivered with great musicality answering Donovan who asks ‘aren’t you worried’, provides an insight into his incredible patience, certainly a necessary attribute for a spy, especially when his world is being turned upside down.
Painting a picture quite literally, the film starts without music, revealing a scene of Abel at his easel crafting a portrait of himself while looking in a mirror, a wonderful hint about his narcissism, until the heightened silence is punctuated by an old fashioned phone ringing.
He answers, although doesn’t speak, silently carrying out the instructions we assume have been delivered.
Lawyer James Donovan is not a man who either shirks his responsibilities or would stop taking his daily commute on the train, just because his fellow travellers may make his journey uncomfortable.
If he makes the decision to take on the case, Donovan knows it will cause he and his own family to suffer derision, but then that is not the only consideration.
There is also the moral dimension and so he stands up to be counted in more ways than one.
Well versed in a system providing a simple public face people will accept, Donovan behind the scenes is an ambitious man, individually gifted with both short and long term vision.
He has an ability to move around using his formidable negotiating skills, while displaying both empathy and audacity, talents he needs in the world surrounding law and politics as well as the elite social circles he and his wife move within.
This helps him bring about successful results, winning the admiration of his colleagues.
Rylance is truly superb as the quietly spoken artistically gifted, cynically witty and enigmatic Russian. Under Steven Spielberg’s brilliant direction he gives us all a lesson in understated eloquence.
Abel is a true master of silences and secrets, one well versed in political intrigues past and present as well as the manipulation men in the halls of power use when taking on huge responsibilities,
Completely unfazed, he greets his captors when they burst into his apartment early in the morning in a cotton singlet and y-fronts, asking would they allow him to put his teeth in before they hurry him off to charge him.
Another storyline develops as well based on the American military. Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is one of a number of young men chosen by the CIA to fly U2 spy-planes.
Captured by the Soviets he’s supposed to end his own life if they shoot the plane down from 70,000 feet. Instead her deploys his parachute and steels himself against torture so that he will not reveal his secrets either.
Securing his release as well as Abel’s in a two for one deal for Donovan would not only be a coup but also give him back both his respectability and reputation.
He knows he will be seen as a man who gets the job done no matter how hard it seems to be and regain everyone’s approbation.
These are all men who have the courage of their convictions and will not betray their principles or their country just to satisfy the ambitions of others.
An enormous respect between Donovan and Abel develops, with the lawyer endeavouring to convince the judge, who has already made up his mind the prisoner is guilty and will execute him, that he may well be Uncle Sam’s ace in the hole.
He wants the Judge to keep him alive just in case in the future in this ‘age of spies’ they would need to swap him for an equally high profile American prisoner in the need arises.
After all this is the ‘Cold War’ and one Donovan has to face up to literally when his coat is stolen when then finds himself travelling from the west into the newly developing ‘east’ Berlin to make such a swap, but not for one man but for the two.
Having learned about the young pilot’s plight, Donovan decides to go after the two for one deal, despite everyone around him wanting to settle for just one.
The film is full of superbly crafted scenes and subtleties by Spielberg, which highlight the dirty business that went down during the drab, dark days of the Cold War.
People being gunned down as they attempt to climb the Berlin wall compared to kids observed by Donovan climbing over walls in American backyards is particularly poignant, and affirms Spielberg’s genius as a master storyteller.
The bleakness of the whole story as intellectualized in the brilliant script rewritten by Ethan and Joel Coen from an original by Matt Charman, is extraordinary.
It certainly resonated for me because I remember these years well growing up in Sydney, where people spying on each other seemed entirely surreal and far removed from my personal experience of life.
The tyranny of distance at that point in history was fast fading though, shrinking under the accelerating rate of technology that would allow people across the world to reach out and communicate with each other.
The Cold War has left a legacy of espionage that still feeds into our popular culture of entertainment today on both TV and at the movies. The James Bond movie franchise would have to be one notable prime example.
Bridge of Spies is a very special movie, one of the best made yet about this period. It is consummate entertainment, combining cinematic excellence with superlative acting performances and quite brilliant direction that on reflection only becomes better.
The story, mined full of ‘noble lies’, moves briskly along, carrying you on a journey that when it ends you don’t want to leave. Well at least that’s how the people around me at the packed performance at the Palace Cinema Como felt, as they voiced their opinion about the film’s ‘genius’.
As the brilliant author John le Careé noted in his much lauded and celebrated novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
“Intelligence work has one moral law – it is justified by results… the bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old question that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: How far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?”
This movie is also all about the art of performance. Every person matters.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Writers Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan
Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel
Austin Stowell as Francis Gary Powers
Watch the Trailer