After a summer marked by one dud after another at the movie theaters, we are now at the time of year when Hollywood begins releasing the heavy hitters that Tinseltown hopes will be among the contenders when the Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 14, 2016. You can see the first of these now at our local theaters because the outstanding “Bridge of Spies” has Academy Award nominations written all over it.
Anyone who follows movies knows that when a couple guys named Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks team up to make a film, the result is going to be exceptional, and “Bridge of Spies” is a perfect example. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War in 1957 and based upon actual events, this powerful motion picture recounts the story of an unsuspecting lawyer who became a national hero.
Let’s go to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1957 and watch a guy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) sit down on a park bench, glance around to make certain no one is watching, and then surreptitiously reach under the bench next to him and retrieve something. He returns to his apartment, where we find out the object under the park bench was a secret message. And then all hell breaks as FBI agents storm into his apartment. Although Abel keeps the mysterious message from the agents, they recover enough evidence to put him on trial as a Russian spy.
Enter James B. Donovan (Hanks), an insurance settlement lawyer, who is taken somewhat aback when the partners in his firm urge him to defend Abel in court. Although the powers that be in the United States firmly believe Abel is a spy for the KGB, they want to make sure that he gets a fair trial so that Russia will not have any grounds to claim he was treated unfairly.
Despite Donovan’s valiant effort during the trial, all 30 charges against Abel are upheld, and the public wants him sentenced to death. Despite the death threats Donovan and his family, he manages to save Abel’s life by arguing that he might be a valuable bargaining tool with the Russians. And his rationale for sparing Abel proves prophetic.
On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia, and Powers was captured. Naturally the Russians aren’t too pleased about what Powers was doing, and things look very bleak for him until Donovan enters the picture again and begins negotiating a prisoner exchange – Abel for Powers and Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). Pryor was an American student who was wrongly detained and branded as a spy during the construction of the Berlin Wall.
“Bridge of Spies” is an incredibly taut drama about a most memorable moment in American history. Tensions ran high in the United States when Powers was shot down, and the country breathed a collective sigh of relief when he was finally released. Spielberg did a masterful job of recreating the atmosphere of the time. This is particularly true of the scenes involving the construction of the Berlin Wall, and I had a knot in my stomach as I watched people being shot down as they tried to climb from one side to the other.
And while we are on the subject of stomach-churning scenes, the one depicting Powers’ plane being shot down is one of the most horrifyingly riveting things I’ve ever watched. In addition to realizing that his plane has been hit, Powers has difficulty ejecting from it. The cinematography is this particular scene and in the film in general defies adequate description.
Among the many fascinating elements in the film is the anguish Donovan goes through in defending Abel. Public opinion had branded Abel as a Soviet spy, and it was quite natural for people to loathe the lawyer defending him. But one of things that made Donovan a real hero was his refusal to fold under public pressure.
Spielberg has made a number of films about both real and fictional heroes, and in a recent interview he and Hanks did with Meredith Alloway of Collider, Spielberg explained his approach to them.
“I don’t really distinguish between a fictional hero and a real life hero as a basis for any comparison. To me, a hero is a hero. I like making pictures about people who have a personal mission in life or at least in the life of a story who start out with certain low expectations and then overachieve our highest expectations for them. That’s the kind of character arc I love dabbling in as a director, as a filmmaker.”
As you might expect, the acting in this film is consistently superb. Spielberg assembled a remarkable cast, headed by Oscar winner Hanks. As he does in every part he plays, Hanks manages to immerse himself so thoroughly in the character he is portraying that we never really think he is acting. His ability to convey various emotions without saying a word makes him particularly effective in conveying donovan’s inner conflict in defending Abel. In the Collider interview Hanks offered his take on Donovan.
“The key to the guy for me, he wrote an awful lot about his own life. He wrote a book about his experience with Rudolf Abel that goes so in depth into the trial I felt like I was a court stenographer. It just goes on and on and on, this motion and that motion. I ended up not reading it all, but look, you look for some degree of superstructure of how it is; you look for something in the past. That he was a prosecutor of the Nuremberg war crimes; that means he wasn’t the type of soldier that went off and wanted to kill as many Nazis as possible. He was the guy who wanted to nail as many Nazis as possible using the letter of the law. That’s a different kind of man. When you take that into account, it pays off in the screenplay, for example I thought at one point his arguments to the Supreme Court about Rudolf, I thought, ‘Oh, come on; let’s not guild the lily here; let’s not turn this into more of an operatic moment than necessary.’ But it turns out that it’s exactly what he said to the Supreme Court. It’s a factor that emboldens itself to the process of making the movie.”
In addition to Hanks’ fine performance, Rylance is wonderful in the part of Abel. No matter what he must face, Abel appears to be remarkably unflappable, and Rylance expresses this flawlessly as he periodically delivers Abel’s mantra: “Would it help?”
“Bridge of Spies” is a superior film in every aspect from the directing to the acting to cinematography to the screenplay. Movies don’t get any better than this, and that’s why it earns the final score of an inarguable 10.