Dir. Steven Spielberg. U.S. 2015

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The height of the Cold War, the late 1950s, was a time of anti-Communist hysteria fueled by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade and only four years after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and executed for providing atomic secrets to the Russians. While it may seem anachronistic to make a film about the Cold War, the points made in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies are just as relevant today. Like Spielberg`s Lincoln,  it is a film about values, about standing up for what you know to be right instead of succumbing to your fears, not an examination of the rights and wrongs of international intrigue or the merits or demerits of the Cold War.

Co-written by the Coen Brothers and Matt Charman, insurance lawyer James Donovan, (Tom Hanks), is called upon by his boss (Alan Alda) to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a defense that would thwart a public opinion calling for his summary execution. In attempting to mount a defense, Donovan discovers that the government only wants him to go through the motions of due process, not to actually mount a strong case for his acquittal. Not even Donovan's family wants him to defend Abel, especially after they receive death threats and rocks are thrown through the windows.

In the film’s opening sequence, Abel is seen painting a self-portrait in a room filled with receivers and transmitters when he is interrupted by a phone call. Leaving his building, he is pursued by federal agents in a frantic chase through streets and subways tracked by cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky. When captured in his home by the feds, the taciturn Abel in a breakout performance by Shakespearean actor Rylance maintains his calm and denies that he is a spy. All he can say is to ask that the agent to please fetch his teeth from the bathroom. Un-Communist spy-like, Abel is also given to dry humor.

When asked why he is so calm in the face of possible execution, he replies, "Would it help?" a response that is humorous and appropriate but repeated once too often in the film to maintain its edge.
Though aware of the strong evidence of his client’s guilt, Donovan establishes a good relationship with Abel whom he calls a man of integrity who is only serving his country. The first part of the film depicts the court proceedings, the sentencing, and Donovan’s appeal to the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds, an appeal that he lost on a 5-4 decision.

The bulk of the film, however, takes place in Berlin where it turns into an international spy thriller, and a good one at that. The film shows the CIA’s secret U2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) flying at 70,000 feet en route to Russia to photograph military installations when it is shot down over Russian air space. When Powers disobeys instructions from his superiors to go down with the plane and is captured by the Russians where he is imprisoned and tortured, the event torpedoes the summit meeting between Khrushchev and Eisenhower, dashing the world`s hopes for peace. Spielberg does not hold back from showing the techniques that Powers is forced to undergo, perhaps a reference to the CIA’s use of water-boarding during the Iraq War.

Called upon to negotiate a prisoner exchange between the Soviets and the East Germans of Powers and captured American student Frederic L. Pryor (Will Rogers) for Abel, Donovan is mugged by East German punks and stripped of his overcoat in the freezing snow, suggesting the addition of “The Spy Who Got a Cold” to the film’s title. Anyway, coat or no coat, Donovan must maintain the ruse that he is an independent party, not an official government representative and the back and forth intrigue and chess match of opposing wills ratchets up the tension until its dramatic conclusion. Bridge of Spies strives for and achieves a refreshing balance, not gratingly pro-American or excessively anti-Soviet but a film that demonstrates the sordid nature of espionage on both sides.

I could complain about the unnecessary role played by Amy Ryan as Donovan’s devoted wife, the ending that goes on past the film’s logical dramatic stopping point, or the overwrought score by Thomas Newman, but would it help? The film is best when it makes clear what American values are supposed to be about. Donovan’s argument to the Supreme Court expresses this well. “Abel is an alien charged with the capital offense of Soviet espionage,” he said. “It may seem anomalous that our Constitutional guarantees protect such a man. … Yet our principles are engraved in the history and the law of the land. If the free world is not faithful to its own moral code, there remains no society for which others may hunger.” Amen, brother!


Howard Schumann

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