Friday, October 16, 2015

Kudos to Spielberg, Hanks for taut Cold War thriller, ‘Bridge of Spies’

By Steve Crum

One would think that with credentials like being co-written by the highly regarded Coen Brothers, starring Oscar winner Tom Hanks, cinematography by Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski, and under the direction of the already legendary Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies would be a an “A” grade motion picture. Lo and behold, it is just that. What superb, must-see storytelling Bridge of Spies certainly is. 

“Inspired by true events,” Bridge of Spies plays out like a meticulously calculated Cold War thriller full of what old school movies and books would have labeled “intrigue.” Spielberg and his writers (Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen) certainly embrace the intrigue, particularly the frustrating secrecy that necessitates one country spying upon another. In this case the countries are the USSR (now Russia) and the United States. The story opens in 1957, and evolves through 1962 during Bridge’s 141 minutes. 

The story opens with a rather innocent appearing oil painter going about his daily life in Brooklyn, setting up his easel both in his modest apartment as well as curbside on the street. He is being stalked, and we do not know why. Incidentally, this is the first of several beautifully directed sequences. It turns out the painter, Rudolf Abel, is a Soviet spy, and the stalkers are FBI agents. Abel is wonderfully played by Mark Rylance—a laid-back, infrequently humorous, Oscar caliber performance. 

Abel is soon arrested for espionage, and readied for a rapid trial and conviction. Realize that the USA tenor of those times was violently anti-Communist via a country that had been ignited with Red hatred since the end of WWII. Even so, some semblance of civility and justice prevailed regarding Commie spies. To that purpose, a pro bono attorney is chosen to defend Abel: James B. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks. The fact he has sparse expertise in criminal law was undoubtedly why he was chosen. His role is to appear to defend Abel, and nothing more. That drastically changes, hence the central conflict, when Donovan decides to truly defend the spy, and not simply be part of a lynching. 

Cut to CIA training headquarters wherein civilian pilots (curiously referred to as “drivers”) are being instructed on flying the newly commissioned U-2 airplanes that are equipped with huge lenses in their bellies to photograph Soviet military bases. One of the drivers is Francis Gary Powers. It is no spoiler to say he is eventually shot down over the USSR, and captured.

So the crux of Bridge of Spies is the interplay of two governments, and the wherewithal of exchanging one for the other on the Glienicke Bridge linking East and West Berlin. Donovan is involved as negotiator, and his frustrating and labored back and forth deal making between the United States and the USSR turns out to be fascinating entertainment. 

In the process, the setting often shifts to the building of the Berlin Wall. Scenes were shot in Wrolcaw, Poland, which obviously still looks like East Berlin of 55 years ago. This and other period sequences suggest a near documentary visual style. Spielberg successfully did likewise with Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List

Although the film’s setup might sound overly complex and bogged down with laborious dialogue, rest assured the conversations are crisp, and the overall pace rapid. 

Kudos to Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife, Mary; Austin Stowell as Francis Gary Powers; and to Alan Alda in a thankless role as Donovan’s law agency boss. An additional plus is given to composer Thomas Newman, who supplies an appropriate low key score. Newman was chosen to replace long time Spielberg collaborator John Williams, who had to bow out due to medical reasons. 

Bridge of Spies is a huge production featuring dozens of actors in elaborate sets, but there is a small scene that stays with me. It takes place in the hall outside a U. S. courtroom where photographers are snapping photos of Donovan and his client Abel. They use period press cameras, requiring large flashbulbs—which the photographers repeatedly flash, eject, and let fall to the floor before reloading another bulb. As the entourage eventually moves out of the area, everyone crushes flashbulbs underfoot. Spielberg captures that moment, and stays on those hard soled shoes crunching and shattering.

GRADE on a scale of A to F: A