Thursday, December 1, 2016

Bridge of Spies

2015's BRIDGE OF SPIES is one of the more satisfying efforts of director Steven Spielberg's recent career.  A good old fashioned Hollywood entertainment that boasts nifty direction, fine production design, and a very workable pace.  I was expecting this movie, a legal drama, to be far more dense and arid.  Though, it being based on attorney James Donovan's (Tom Hanks) defense of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and his subsequent efforts of an exchange of the latter with two Americans (downed American pilot in the U.S.S.R and a student in East Berlin) was good source material.  The film does lend itself to an inspiring story, which Spielberg pulls off with great polish.

1957.  Donovan is an insurance lawyer who finds himself defending an accused traitor, a Soviet spy who intercepts secret messages under park benches and operates radio equipment out of a hotel room in NYC.  Donovan is reluctant but soon is immersed in the case, always looking to the Constitution while the F.B.I., C.I.A. and seemingly everyone else just wants to send the spy to the gas chamber.  Donovan himself played prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials, but cites that his client is entitled to civil liberties, something many in the name of nationalism are too willing to forgo.

Donovan repeatedly notes that Abel was acting as a patriot for his country, and that Americans do the same in the name of theirs as they go about the business of espionage overseas.  The lawyer's crusades are unpopular with the public, even his own family.  Abel is expectedly convicted, but Donovan successfully lobbies the judge to hand down a jail sentence rather than the death penalty.  His reasoning - what if one of our own finds himself in the same predicament in Russia?  An insurance policy, if you will.

Sure enough, Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is facing charges in a Soviet court after his U-2 is shot down some time later.  A swap of sorts is considered by the U.S.S.R for Abel.  Donovan travels to East Berlin for a series of frustrating meetings with Embassy officials and even KGB to broker the deal, which the lawyer further insists includes the release of American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers).  The attorney will find himself subjected to "spy stuff", somewhat dangerous.

Quite encouragingly, the screenplay credits the participation of Joel and Ethan Coen along with Matt Charman.  The Coens apparently added quite a bit to the negotiation scenes, and some of their quirky humor is visible during moments with East German Attorney General Harald Ott (Burghart Klaubner).  But the screenplay suffers a fair amount of predictability, even if most or all of the events are true (with altered timelines).  When Donovan loses his overcoat to street toughs, you just know someone is going to tell him how crazy he is to be without one in Germany's punishing winter.   I also found the train scenes in NYC to be too "Hollywood" as when the disapproving eyes of passengers stare at Donovan over newspapers.  And then at the end, as Donovan is vindicated, those eyes soften. Bah.  BRIDGE OF SPIES didn't need such "movie moments".  It's the sort of thing of which Ron Howard is often guilty.   Some of Thomas Newman's scoring cues are also a bit too obvious.

But BRIDGE OF SPIES is an engrossing, entertaining bit of history that does in fact make you happy to know that men like Donovan do exist.  Who are tirelessly advocating for the forgotten and dispossessed even when they perhaps just want to fall into their own beds.

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