Bridge of Spies

 

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Steven Spielberg’s real-life drama relates how the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel arrested in New York in 1957 came to be traded for the return of U-2 pilot Gary Powers. It offers both expected virtues and some telling surprises.


By now the phrase ‘inspired by true events’ has become a cliché and Bridge of Spies does not even bother to add the usual qualification that some events have been dramatised and some characters invented. It is certainly true that the lawyer James B. Donovan played by Tom Hanks was requested to defend the spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in court and was subsequently asked to go to Berlin and negotiate a swap – Abel to be released to the Russians in return for the American pilot Powers who in this Cold War period had fallen into Russian hands (this after taking aerial photographs for military intelligence). Other details in the film such as an attack on Donovan’s home and an encounter in East Berlin with youths who steal his coat were invented and, without ever becoming as contrived as the later stages of  Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012), the climax here does leave us with a sense of the reality being somewhat manipulated for extra dramatic effect.


In effect Bridge of Spies comes across as a film of two halves. The first deals mainly with Donovan’s belief that it is his patriotic duty to provide a proper defence for Abel and his discovery that this action will not only arouse hatred against him but will reveal that those like the judge in the case (the excellent Dakin Matthews) are determined to find Abel guilty even if to do so ignores proper procedures and flies in the face if an individual’s constitutional rights. Tom Hanks IIThis is cutting edge stuff since this attitude is born of America’s fear of Communism and invites a comparison with today’s tendency to cut through rights of individuals on the grounds that such actions are necessary to combat terrorism. The second half moves nearer to standard popular drama ending on a heroic note far removed from the more serious issues raised.


But what is apparent throughout is the quality of the filmmaking: the fluidity of the direction, Michael Kahn’s superb editing, the look of the piece as captured by a frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski. This means that the length is wonderfully sustained and, if Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife is sadly wasted (Alan Alda too), there are two striking star turns. Tom Hanks, so good in Captain Phillips, continues to mature well (just as Wayne and Tracy did), while the film’s secret weapon is the engagingly individual character of Rudolf Abel as captured perfectly by Mark Rylance in his best screen work to date. Even if the first half is the better, what follows does not lack general appeal and there is much in Bridge of Spies to admire.  

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons, Sebastian Koch, Eve Hewson, Will Rogers, Dakin Matthews.


Dir Steven Spielberg, Pro Spielberg, Marc Platt and Kristie Macosko Krieger, Screenplay Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen, Ph Janusz Kaminski, Pro Des Adam Stockhausen, Ed Michael Kahn, Music Thomas Newman, Costumes Kasia Walicka Maimone.


Fox 2000 Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures/Reliance Entertainment/Amblin Entertainment/Marc Platt Productions, etc-20th Century Fox.
141 mins. USA/UK/Germany/India. 2015. Rel: 26 November 2015. Cert. 12A.