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Have you represented many accused spies?

Bridge of Spies
(2015)

(SPOILERS) I’ve grown rather used to solid rather than spectacular Steven Spielberg fare of late, the consequence of a consummate craftsman who can never quite resist the urge to impress base sentiment on material that needs less, not more, of his predilections. As such, Bridge of Spies is a near miss, frequently gripping and engrossing but resistant to a chillier, more distanced approach that might have benefited its fact-based, Cold War setting.


The director’s last unqualified successes came with back-to-back 2002 pictures Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can. Since then he has made several movies (notably the also fact-based Munich and Lincoln) in which he grasped at intellectual rigour and emotional depth that eluded his essentially populist ethic. Spielberg isn’t one who generally plays to his strengths when in at the deep end, out of his comfort zone, since it draws attention both to what he’s good at (manipulative audience button-pushing, but now in a context where it looks cheap and cynical) and what he isn’t (interrogating a serious subject without succumbing to his more maudlin instincts).


You can see this at work in Bridge of Spies, the story of James B Donovan’s defence of Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel and the former’s subsequent negotiation of the latter’s exchange for US spy plane pilot Gary Powers. It takes effect in the easy iconography of casting all-American Tom Hanks as Donovan, being that Donovan is an exemplar of what America should be (in spite of practising insurance law); “Every person matters”. While Donovan’s cautious about taking on Abel’s case, since it is basically seen as a done deal and strictly for show purposes (being that America gives everyone, no matter who they are and what they have done, a right to a fair trial). Donovan takes the government at their word, though, and in so doing clashes with a partial judge who scoffs at his every request and a CIA contact who has zero patience for attorney-client privilege if it prevents him getting the lowdown on anything Abel may have spilled to Donovan.


There are echoes of the up-against-it Jim Garrison of Oliver Stone’s JFK in Donovan (albeit Hanks embodies dignified reserve while Costner becomes tearfully impassioned), particularly when his wife (Amy Ryan) expresses concerns over pursuing his client’s case to his utmost; it’s an honourable man’s sense of right versus a husband’s perceived duty to protect his family. We also see Donovan’s shrewd legal mind, in a very unaffected Jimmy Stewart manner, as he ensures the death penalty is avoided through pointing out Abel’s potential worth as a bargaining chip should an American be captured (and wouldn’t you know it…)


Even then, Donovan doesn’t let matters lie, appealing the now convicted Abel’s case as due process wasn’t followed for the arrest. People give him dirty looks on trains, and when shots are fired into his living room (a bit of creative licence there, but this is a fictional drama) an officer at the scene admonishes him for his unpatriotic behaviour. While casting Hanks is obvious, it’s also a smart move, as Spielberg, in his stubby, sausage fingered manner, means to point out contemporary actions and attitudes, not just those of 50-plus years ago (conversely, the picture could be said to be signalling that current fast-and-loose, or flagrantly illegal, policies are nothing new).  Donovan upholds the rule book, the American Constitution, even (or especially) when it doesn’t suit the powers that be, or the people, a move as unpopular as speaking out over the infringement of civil liberties, be it surveillance, extraordinary rendition or illegal invasions. This is Hanks in unblinking paragon mode, where the principle is the thing, and pretty much everyone but his client falls short of that ideal.


For, while Hanks is the star of the picture, it’s very lucky for him that Mark Rylance is barely in the third act, so effortlessly scene-stealing is Abel. Rylance’s transition to TV and movies in the last three or four years has yielded notable dividends with first Wolf Hall and now this (and The BFG to come). He’s an immensely gifted stage actor who can make even sometimes too-cute dialogue work (Abel’s “Would it help?” response to Donovan querying if he is scared/nervous is delivered three times, which is at least one too many).


“Colonel” Abel’s unflappable calm and unswerving dedication to his cause (he never even admits to being a spy) is, in Spielberg’s eyes, just as impressive as Donovan’s standing by his man. There’s a lovely little bit of superior spy nous as Abel is arrested (in reality, he was shopped by his also-spy assistant) and he casually requests to clean up his paints (if the picture is accurate, Abel was an outstanding artist, as well as a prolific smoker), in so doing engineering the disposal of the incriminating message he has just received; it’s entirely understandable that Donovan should warm so to this unassuming, diligent and dutiful fellow.


Which makes it the more disappointing that Spielberg (or the Coen Brothers, indulging him with their polish of Matt Charman’s screenplay) can’t resist the urge to over-egg. We really don’t need Abel testifying to Donovan’s heroism, and positioning our Soviet spy as promulgator of the protagonist’s stature is rather leading us by the nose (and so an entirely Spielberg thing to do). He does it twice, first warning Donovan of the danger he may be putting himself in by pursuing the defence as far as he can (a scene or two later the Donovan living room is strafed with bullets) and then at the climax worshipping at Donovan’s altar when the latter apologises for not being able to offer in kind for Abel’s gift; “This your gift” replies Abel, of his return to his homeland. And then he repeats it. One can only console oneself that it would be a much bigger groan with a lesser talent than Rylance; it would have been no chore to make the entire film about Abel (whether it got financed is another matter).


There are other too-neat touches, ones that might have worked if the Coens had directed, but Spielberg makes them heavy-handed; the disapproving newspaper reader(s) on the subway turn to beaming smiles when Donovan secures Powers’ release. Then there’s the cold Abel starts the picture with, which moves to Donovan and finally ends up with the unsympathetic CIA guy. And the way in which the insurance meeting between Donovan and another attorney (perhaps the most evident example of Coen Brothers dialogue, and a reminder that Hanks is familiar with their cadences from one of their rare lesser efforts, The Ladykillers), in which he eruditely explains that one insurance claim cannot be five, is later reworked when he decides to press for both Powers and hapless student Price to be exchanged for Abel. On paper it’s quite a neat touch, in action a little clumsy.


Of which, there’s no getting round that interweaving some of the elements leads to structural problems. Despite the telegraphing of Powers’ involvement through his selection as a pilot, and the instruction regarding how he should destroy his plane and top himself rather than be captured, there’s no attachment to, or investment in, his character. Casting someone who doesn’t come across as a complete blank (sorry, Austin Stowell) might have helped matters, except you almost sense Spielberg wants Powers to come across as a complete blank. He goes as far as exonerating Powers’ actions (in other words, for failing to kill both his plane and himself), but unlike the other main players you’re left in doubt about whether any sympathy is supposed to reside with him. It bears noting that Jesse Plemons is much more memorable as Powers’ pal than Stowell is as Powers.


There are similar issues with awkward introductions when Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) enters the scene out of nowhere. Nevertheless, Hanks is in his element with Donovan’s “stranger in a stranger land” negotiations, from being uncoated by a gang of youths, to standing up to the CIA, the petty-minded East German authorities (who want recognition and resent playing second fiddle; there’s a particularly good performance here from Sebastian Koch), the Soviets, of course, and even sidestepping Abel’s fake relatives. I’d like to see Spielberg tackle a straight Cold War thriller, since I have a feeling he’d handle the full-on genre immersion better without the onus of constantly straining for respect.


Unaccompanied by stalwart composer John Williams, the ‘berg makes do with Thomas Newman. The result is a wholly unremarkable score. Newman may not have wanted to reference Williams, but you can hear JFK in the evocative ‘60s milieu. Elsewhere, he hits a multitude of predictable beats, from Soviet clichés to military drums for the spy plane scenes. Definitely not an Academy-troubling piece.


Of which, most seem to consider this a decent but low-key Spielberg affair, so while the costumes/cinematography/art direction could all gain notices, I suspect only Mark Rylance will garner significant attention. The remainder of the supporting cast is generally strong, including Alan Alda, Ryan, and Scott Shepherd giving probably the breakout performance; his empathy-free CIA guy makes an impression despite being a fairly unvarnished role. Bridge of Spies may not be vintage Spielberg, then, a little too structurally wayward and emotionally indulgent to soar, but it still might be his most easily digestible picture of the last decade.


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