Tuesday, October 20, 2015

In Theaters: BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

(US/UK/Germany - 2015)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Scott Shepherd, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons, Eve Hewson, Domenick Lombardozzi, Will Rogers, Peter McRobbie, Dakin Matthews, Mikhail Gorevoy, Michael Gaston, Billy Magnusson, John Rue. (PG-13, 141 mins)

The Cold War drama BRIDGE OF SPIES is Steven Spielberg's first film in three years, and his third historical film in a row following the underrated WAR HORSE (2011) and the overrated LINCOLN (2012). It also marks his first collaboration with Joel & Ethan Coen, who revamped the original script by Matt Charman. Like WAR HORSE, his self-described "1940s John Ford film," BRIDGE OF SPIES is Spielberg crafting a deliberately old-fashioned work that, two F-bombs aside, seems to come straight out of 1965 and would probably be in regular rotation on Turner Classic Movies. From the climax on a bridge where west meets east to East German stasi at the Berlin Wall barking "Papers, please!" and, at its core, a very earnest, Jimmy Stewart/Henry Fonda-like performance by Tom Hanks (in his fourth Spielberg film), BRIDGE OF SPIES is very reminiscent of Hitchcock in Cold War mode, even though nobody really cares much for TORN CURTAIN (1966) and the perpetually unappreciated TOPAZ (1969) these days.

Based on the true events that led to the 1962 Glienicke Bridge prisoner swap of Soviet-captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers and American-imprisoned Russian spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, BRIDGE OF SPIES focuses on New York insurance attorney James J. Donovan (Hanks), chosen by the US government to defend accused Soviet spy Abel (Mark Rylance), when he's arrested by the FBI in Brooklyn on espionage charges. Donovan served in WWII and was an assistant to the prosecution team at Nuremberg, and though he's been strictly in insurance law for over a decade, the government believes he's got the skills and his glad-handing boss Thomas Watters Jr. (Alan Alda) thinks volunteering him would be great press for the firm. The judge (Dakin Matthews) makes it clear from the start that Donovan isn't supposed to do anything other than provide the most basic defense possible to fulfill the requirements of "due process," and when Donovan motions to have the search of Abel's apartment thrown out when he learns it was done without a warrant, everyone--from the judge to Watters to his own wife (Amy Ryan)--is outraged that he's actually putting forth effort in the defense of his client. Though he's a spy, Donovan respects the sense of duty shown by the soft-spoken Abel, who never once gives up a Soviet secret no matter how many times he's interrogated. Donovan is alarmed by how calm Abel remains through his ordeal (when he asks Abel how he's not panicking as he could be facing the electric chair, Abel replies "Would it help?" which becomes a recurring line). Abel is, of course, found guilty, though Donovan does manage to convince the judge to put in him prison rather than handing down a death sentence, explaining that if an American was ever in his position, going the humanitarian route and not executing Abel might save that American's life and provide leverage for a prisoner exchange.

Almost prophetically, that's exactly what happens the next year when Powers (Austin Stowell), on a secret CIA reconnaissance mission, is shot down over the Soviet Union and taken prisoner. Like Abel, he refuses to divulge what he knows, and when the US is desperate to get him back but wants to leave the government out of it, they once again call on Donovan to negotiate an exchange of Powers for Abel with the Russians. Once in East Berlin, much to the disapproval of his CIA handler Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), Donovan goes off script with his Soviet contact Schischken (Mikhail Gorevoy) and is forced to negotiate separately with East German Vogel (Sebastian Koch) for the release of a second American prisoner, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a graduate student working preparing his dissertation on European economics.

BRIDGE OF SPIES won't go down as essential Spielberg, and it's infrequently prone to the same kind of preachy speechifying that bogged down LINCOLN (sure, Daniel Day-Lewis was an uncanny Honest Abe, but do you remember anything else about the movie?). Fortunately, it's kept in check here and there's quite a bit of snappy wit to prevent it from being a SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD or TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY-style downer, almost certainly a contribution of the Coen Bros. Whether it's Abel's refrained "Would it help?" or a running gag about Donovan's annoyance with how long the official names of the USSR and East Germany are (about the tenth time he hears Schischken say "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics," Donovan snaps "Can you just say Russian?  It'll save time"), or the CIA putting Donovan up at an unheated West Berlin safe house where he can see his breath as Hoffman informs him "I'm staying at the Hilton," or the way a sniffling head cold makes its way from Abel to Donovan to Hoffman over the course of the film, there's a lot of subtle, sly humor throughout the otherwise deadly serious proceedings. At 68, Spielberg isn't looking to blaze new trails and as such, BRIDGE OF SPIES is hardly SCHINDLER'S LIST or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and could even be termed "minor" if one were cynical enough (though it's not as minor as 2004's THE TERMINAL, his last teaming with Hanks and one of the director's weakest films), but second-tier Spielberg is better than most others' A-games. It trucks along quite nicely for a nearly two and a half hour film, Hanks again shows he's the durable master of the game as the American Everyman, and I like this throwback/historical side of Spielberg. Like WAR HORSE and probably LINCOLN, it's easy to label BRIDGE OF SPIES "an old people movie," but doing so is actually a compliment. More of today's directors could learn about shot composition, plot construction, and storytelling from old men like Spielberg and the Coens.

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