Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Oct 04, 2015 5:24 pm 
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Hanks shines as the stolid American Cold War hero of the Abel-Powers exchange

Spielberg's foray into Cold War espionage lore is a showcase for Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. Most of the other roles are just walk-ons -- a weakness in the Coen brothers-Matt Charman script; but otherwise Spielberg delivers. It's an interesting story, presented with superbly atmospheric, and old-fashioned, mise-en-scène, handsomely lensed by dp Janusz Kamiński, that is both fun to follow and a joy to the eye. The film's complex back-and-forth in the second half has some of the excitement of a John Le Carré spy novel. Hanks dominates as Jim Donovan, the rather heroic New York insurance lawyer who negotiated the Rudolf Abel-Gary Powers exchange in East Germany in the cold February of 1962 (and went on to be a negotiator in Cuba for Kennedy). (Hanks doesn't do bad guys these days -- if he ever did; he's currently shooting Miraicle on the Hudson, a biopic directed by Clint Eastwood where he plays the heroic pilot Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.)

Bride of Spies is a richly achieved, well-written Cold War story but it departs sharply from Le Carré territory is the way it's dominated by a lineup of good guy-bad guy Americans. It also never delves into the gray-shaded, often seedy details of espionage, and lacks the betrayals and the pessimism the secret world involves. Early on when Abel is captured the film shows America to be a world of simplistic hate and "us" vs. "them" thinking. Abel remains mysterious, however. He was a Soviet spy (even if the Soviets never acknowledged it), but how he spent his time other than drawing and painting, we never learn. Gary Powers was only an unheroic drone in a new kind of techno-spying Le Carré might shake his head at. He got shot down on his first big aerial reconnaissance mission, a rookie in a small elite group of young pilots told to fly the U2 planes, work the cameras, and keep their mouths shut.

Mark Rylance is swell as Abel, presented as a tough, dry, basically decent man doing his job. The movie comes down to a portrait of Hanks and we identify with his solid adherence to values like the Constitution against both mass extremism and cold-blooded, amoral CIA practicality -- particularly the willingness of the CIA mission boss (Jon Donahue) to forget about the recently detailed Yale graduate student Frederic Pryer (Will Rogers) whom Donovan insists on getting freed along with Powers. The plot revives its faltering suspense in the last quarter by keeping it uncertain till the last minute whether Pryer will appear at Checkpoint Charlie as Powers and Abel are swapped at the Glienicke Bridge.

Though he has worked at the Nuremberg trials, Donovan has long been a specialist in insurance, not criminal matters. He simply takes on the unglamorous but altruistic job of defending an arch enemy of the US, a Soviet spy, because he is asked to. He faces intense public prejudice, and stands strong against an unscrupulous judge (Dakin Matthews) and does everything he can to defend his client. Essential to Donovan's value to his country and the world, he is not just a forthright man of principle but also wily and pragmatic. Thus he foresees the value of not executing Abel so he can be available for a possible a spy exchange. He appeals Abel's case to the Supreme Court on civil rights and procedural grounds, but without success. The U2 missions are a thread that has been interwoven with the Donovan-Abel story. When we see a vivid depiction of Gary Powers being shot down and captured, we have the spy to to exchange for Abel.

In Hanks' excellent performance, Donovan continually grows in our sympathy. When he is sent as the unofficial negotiator in East Germany, we sympathize and admire as he allows his overcoat to be stolen and battles a cold. And we savor the gemütlichkeit of his Nescafés with two sugars, his unfinished double breakfast at the Berlin Hilton, his frequent indulgence in whiskies and cordials.

This is a film of impressive skill, Spielberg working near the top of his game, but in its somewhat retro, morally upright manner it lacks some of the complexity and cynicism its subject calls out for. Hanks' Donovan is as solid as a rock. The only trouble is that as with other good guys, he's not finally very interesting. Being good doesn't even seem hard for him; he never falters. There's something unquestioned and sweet about his friendship with his client, Rudolf Abel. There could be other ways of looking at Abel, whose history is along and complicated one. But for this movie, Abel has to be seen simply as a loyal servant of his country. As Donovan points out, there are Americans doing the same for their country too. There goes all the complexity of a good spy novel, where hiding and stealing secrets are things that are morally dubious and mess majorly with a person's head.

Bridge of Spies, 135 mins., debuted 4 Oct. 2015 at the New York Film Festival, where is was screened for this review. US theatrical release begins 16 Oct. (Metacritic rating 81%); UK 27 Nov.; France 2 Dec.

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