Sunday, 24 January 2016

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Brooklyn, New York.  1957.  A man, seen from behind, stares at a portrait painting.  He looks across, and we see, as he sees, his reflection in a mirror, and it becomes clear that he is painting a self portrait.  He's a slight figure, gentle, benign, a little elderly; but determined.  Instantly, there are three versions of this man... the one in the painting, the man looking on, and the one in the mirror.  Which is real?  The painted image, the reflection, or the observer?  The man receives a phone call; he answers, but says nothing  Heading out of his apartment, through the streets and into the subway, he is followed by what appear to be US Government Agents.  At one point it seems he has evaded them.  Is he aware of their presence, or is this merely luck?  Settling on a bench in the shadow of the bridge he begins to paint, pausing surreptitiously to reach for a coin secreted under the seat.  Returning to his apartment, he meticulously dismantles the coin, retrieving a message concealed within.  A short while later, his door is beaten down, and the FBI Agents storm in...

In this one extended sequence, lasting only a few minutes and with next to no dialogue, director Steven Spielberg once again displays the expert touch of the master that he is, establishing Cold War period setting, paranoid tone, and an enigmatic character set to drive the narrative.  It's an instant reassurance, setting up the film perfectly.

The man arrested in Brooklyn is Rudolf Abel, (Mark Rylance), a British born Soviet citizen operating in the U.S as a spy for the U.S.S.R. The case for his defence in the ensuing trial on charges of espionage and treason falls to the somewhat reluctant James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks).  Donovan, a partner in a prestigious New York law firm, is quickly established to be a shrewd but honest, idealistic, and patriotic man.  Initially unwilling to get involved in the murky politics of a defence he knows will be unpopular with the American public, he nonetheless realises that he has no choice in the matter and sets about his task with dogged zeal.  His faith in the Constitution as the "rule book" is total, in the face of near derision from the authorities and a widespread assumption that Abel's guilt and following death sentence are a foregone conclusion.  Donovan loses the trial, but having successfully argued that Abel could not be guilty of treason as he was not an American Citizen, he also goes on to secure a sentence of 30 years imprisonment rather than the death penalty.  The film shows him suggesting that this is simply for practical reasons, as Abel may be useful at some point in the future; but it also hints at his compassion for, and even a friendship with his client. 

A parallel story unfolds, that of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), an American pilot of the high-altitude U-2 spy plane, who is shot down during a mission over Soviet territory in May 1960.  Captured, tried and incarcerated by the Soviets, Powers poses a major security risk for the Americans due to the illicit nature of his missions and the sensitive information he possesses.  It is the same headache Abel's situation causes the Soviets.  Neither side can be certain what secrets have been extracted from their man under interrogation, and both are desperate to limit their exposure.  Thus, as Donovan predicted, Abel does turn out to be useful.  And as his advocate, it is Donovan who takes the lead role in the negotiations for the prisoner exchange.  He travels to Berlin to set about this potentially dangerous task, telling his wife and family that he's going on a business trip, so as to spare their worry.

The final player in this delicate play is Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American post graduate student who is caught and imprisoned in East Berlin after trying in vain to bring his girlfriend across to the West before the Wall is completed.  On learning this, Donovan resolves to secure Pryor's freedom along with Powers'.  But this means negotiating with the East Germans and the Soviets simultaneously, whilst only having one package to offer them both.  With opposition from his own side, who don't want Pryor's inclusion to jeopardise the deal for Powers, and facing a diplomatic minefield and political tensions between the Communist bloc governments, Donovan's task will not be easy.

Whilst ostensibly a straightforward Cold War thriller (in a loose sense), "Bridge of Spies" succeeds because it is much more than that. It laps up the paranoid setting and atmosphere of films such as "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold", the masterful 1965 adaptation of John Le Carre's novel, but it also becomes a legal drama, a sketch of an unusual friendship, and ultimately a story of a man's determination to do the right thing.  Not least it's a document of a time in history when safety had a different meaning; when Donovan's son displays his "duck and cover" shelter the audience can laugh at its quaintness or wonder that this was once a realistic threat.  Spielberg's command of cinema is such that he can draw on a range of other films and invoke their images and tones without ever coming across as derivative.  The details of the Abel / Powers affair are not too widely known - perhaps surprisingly given its comparatively recent occurrence - which makes for a compelling hook.  

Carrying the undulating tones and turns of the narrative are a pair of fascinatingly drawn and deeply engaging central characters.  Hanks' Donovan is every bit as upstanding and honourable as one would expect.  It's a cliché to invoke the "Hanks is the modern day James Stewart" line, but it's hard to think of an actor who carries that solid morality with a touch of fragility the way this double-Oscar winner does.  His crusade is conducted with a strong and single-minded purpose, particularly in the matter of securing Pryor's release as part of the deal.  Hanks brings a subtle undercurrent of nervous energy to Donovan, which makes him human, and not just heroic.  Set alongside him is the extraordinary Rylance, now Oscar nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category, whose Abel is a shrewd, measured puzzle-box of a man.  Subterfuge for him isn't emotional, malicious, ideological or anything other than matter of fact.  He seems to be the least threatening Enemy of the State, rather just a man doing his job.  At one point, receiving bad news about the trial, Donovan asks him if he's worried. "Would it help?" he replies, deadpan.  Largely seeming detached, there are nonetheless a few moments into which Abel injects his honest personality, such as his "standing man" speech, in which he pays Donovan the honour of comparing him to his own father in his attitude towards injustice.  The pair's friendship, as it develops, is cautious but wholly believable.

As well as delivering a gripping drama, Spielberg paints a vivid picture of a particular time in modern history in which morality was possibly slightly easier to define.  The "Reds" were the enemy, the Americans were the "good guys".  But then the film challenges that perception and presents things as not so clear cut.  Donovan is widely perceived as soft, for helping a "commie", and Abel comes across as totally human.  When things move to Berlin, the Communist party officials encountered aren't painted as ogres.  It boils down to basic principles of individuality and justice, and the reactions of the men of power surrounding events seem constantly at odds with those of the protagonists.   Directorially, Spielberg is on top form, placing and moving his camera in a manner as seldom before.  There are a number of long, steady tracking shots, almost Kubrickian in their precision, which add an unusual, measured dynamic to the events unfolding, subtly asking the audience to sense the bigger picture.  And, in an overtly stylized touch, interview rooms where Donovan and Abel confer on more than one occasion are backlit by near-blinding white light from the windows, giving an almost ethereal feel to their conversations.  It's a film almost exclusively about people sitting in rooms talking to each other, but it doesn't feel staid, stuffy or static.

Screenwriter Matt Charman deserves great credit for investigating the factual record and crafting an absorbing narrative which balances so many elements so skillfully.  Unexpectedly, the film is also quite funny; much has been made of the "polish" given to the script by Ethan and Joel Coen, and it's suggested that this is the source of this humour.  It certainly recalls their knack of conjuring sometimes darkly comic moments from situations of high drama or tension.  It brings a welcome deftness to what could easily become an overly weighty, wordy exercise, and softens the sharp edges of the unavoidable tropes of the spy genre.  The trio are Oscar and Bafta nominated for Best Original Screenplay, rightfully so.  In all the film has six Academy Award nominations, including in the Sound Editing, and Production Design categories, as well as for Best Film.  Pleasingly, the prolific Thomas Newman ("The Shawshank Redemption", "The Player", "Skyfall") has been recognised for yet another in a long line of subtle, effective music scores.  Of course it's only those who take home the awards who are remembered in years to come, but it's testament to the stirling work done in all departments that it has been acknowledged. 

2015, somewhat fancifully dubbed cinema's "year of the spy", saw a number of high profile movies ("Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation", "Spectre", "Kingsman: The Secret Service" et al) paying lip service to the idea of espionage.  But the notion of a spy on film has been more or less subsumed into the action / adventure genre; I blame 007.  Whilst "Bridge" is not a documentary and  obviously has to be constructed as an involving drama/thriller with interesting and sympathetic characters, it nevertheless has its roots firmly in fact.  It's a proper spy film.  The climactic exchange, at the eponymous Glienicke Bridge, complete with snipers waiting on both sides for something to go amiss, is exactly what comes to mind when imagining the Cold War, as someone who didn't live through it.  It's a standoff, but not in the sense that weapons are overtly pointed, but in a test of strength of will; Donovan won't budge and let Abel walk across and Powers return until Pryor is clear of Checkpoint Charlie.  Right up to the end, neither side knows for sure what sacred secrets their man might have given up to the opposition.  The Berlin Wall acts as a mirror.  Donovan experiences contrasting emotions observing events from his train carriage; desperation and slaughter in Berlin, joy and sport, kids playing ball  back home.  If it seems unsubtle, trumpeting the inherent decency and steadfastness of "American Values", or - horror of horrors - "old fashioned", the film consistently presents both sides, and is decently modern as such.  When Abel is led away, Donovan asks what will happen to him.  Abel comments that it will depend on how he is received - if hugged and welcome, all will be all right, but if he's ushered unceremoniously into the back seat of the car, perhaps not.  As Powers returns to the Americans and is warmly greeted by his erstwhile colleague (Jesse Plemons) the viewer's heart sinks, not just at the fate of this likable little man, but as to the conflicting attitudes of the two societies.

Ultimately, the film is hearteningly uncynical, and beautifully well-judged.  It's a brilliant thriller which reflects the past but holds a message of personality and persistence that's as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.  It's always slightly more pleasing when Spielberg makes films of this ilk; as brilliant as the "Jurassic Park" and "Indiana Jones" films are, he's always better with weightier material, a supreme artist, and this is another worthy entry in his lengthening catalogue of magnificent, timeless motion pictures.

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