Steven Spielberg and
Tom Hanks are back to tell a true story from the 1950′s era when the cold war was at its height in America’s paranoia around the nuclear arms race and communism.
A Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested by the FBI in New York and is interrogated but refuses to give up anything. He is a soldier caught in by the other side in a war and he is being patriotic to his country. A point that is labored by James Donovan (Tom Hanks) the lawyer, that is forced to represent him in an American court. This makes Donovan hugely unpopular by the American press and public as the man that is defending the enemy.
However, the whole point of putting him on trial is to show to the world just how American justice works and how fair it is, demonstrating the higher standards compared to Russia. Though it is clear that a conviction is a foregone conclusion by all parties that believe they are just doing a show for the media. Donovan though has other ideas. He believes every man has the right to a fair trial. He learns to respect Abel and hopes any captured American soldier would do the same if faced with the same situation.
Abel is found guilty and a death sentence is expected by everyone. Donovan believes this is wrong, and even appeals to the supreme court (the actual speech Hanks delivers is the speech the real life Donovan used). The Supreme court upholds the original verdict, 5 to 4, but Donovan makes a plea to the judge to commute the death sentence to life in prison. Noting that if they execute a Russian spy then Russia will do the same if one of theirs is captured which could spark the start of a world war. Instead he believes he could be more useful as a bargaining chip at a later date to exchange a prisoner.
Reluctantly the judge agrees much to the disbelief of the media and the public who are baying for blood. The movie deals with this issue very well and illustrates that there is many layers to the decisions that are made on a world political stage that the average man on the street doesn’t appreciate. To them (partly due to the media) everything should be black’n’white, good’n’bad. No one breaks ranks to try and explain to the media, they are just left to print their rhetoric. Subtle.
Well needless to say, a U2 pilot is shot down and taken prisoner by the Russians who parade him infront of the worlds press as an enemy to the Russian people and he is treated relatively harshly compared to how Abel was treated by the Americans.
Donovan is then asked, to officially unofficially negotiate a prisoner exchange to get the fallen pilot back home. Throw in an American Yale student who is caught on the wrong side of the Berlin wall and we have a great thriller that goes along at a wonderful pace.
Rylance plays Abel perfectly, very unassuming man, who never appears phased or worried (would it help?). We never actually learn what secrets he was passing back or what access to information he had to even channel back. He is seen as an artist with no background here. Did he have a government job? Did he have friends in government? This was a huge hole I feel that was never filled in.
Tom Hanks once again excels and morphs himself into a role that you are left believing that he is Donovan. He put on a lot of weight for this movie to give you that sense that this was a lawyer at the top of his game, who made a huge career change when his country asked him to step up to what was going to be a thankless task.
The movie is shot beautifully with a nice colour hue that dulls down the brightness giving a real sense of the era. Spielberg does a good job of highlighting the differences between Berlin and New York and that both sides were as bad as the other with their use of propaganda to feed the fears of their respective nations. The confusion and simple lack of information all fed into the hysteria of the time.
Bridge of Spies is a good old fashioned cold war thriller that is devoid of action scenes, shootings, and car chases. It is about the story which is thrilling enough to carry you along without noticing you have sat for over 2 hours. There is enough drama in the facts without resorting to cheap tricks.
Another great outing for Hanks/Spielberg and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this movie listed in the Oscar line up next year in a number of categories.
Friday, 23rd October 2015 (Richmond, Movieland Cinema)