Beautiful cinematography, with black umbrellas and rain sheets in street light haze, with the base of Brooklyn Bridge in all its massiveness, and with East German interiors of faded yellow suggesting more faded stories is what Janusy Kaminski gives the viewer of “Bridge Of Spies”. The lovely black and white pictures of white snow and black trusses is what I enjoyed. Director Steven Spielberg gives us a patriotic historical drama celebrating what makes us American. The earnest Tom Hanks gives us moral character, the “stand-up guy”. Hanks is a pro at impassioned speeches. In his portrayal of Attorney James B. Donovan, he tells us he is Irish on both sides, but what makes him American-what makes us all Americans – is the rule book,our Constitution. The audience at full-house at half-an-hour before previews broke into applause at the film’s end. The “one man can make a difference” is big in our culture. “The greatest weapon we have is who we are!” Hanks reminds us.
The setting is 1957, and the film’s attention to period detail is fun for those who remember. The production designer is first-rate. The brimmed hats,the collar bars,the high pants and short ties,the prayerful meals,the bomb drills,the phone ring, the journalists’ flash bulbs tossed to the ground all are past reminders. Yet, connections to the present are purposefully here. The atmosphere of fear for our way of life,the ironic calls of God’s name, the prejudice against the foreign, how our criminal justice system looks are all here. My favorite line was “In the name of God why aren’t we hanging him!”
The story of Cold War espionage and the threat of a full thermal nuclear exchange as the backdrop incorporates codes of silence and spy agencies’ puffery. The war of information becomes a machismo game. Donovan, who used to be a criminal lawyer, but now is working for an insurance firm, is asked by the U.S. government to represent a captured Soviet spy, who has served this foreign power faithfully. Though Jim Donovan is honored to be asked,he understands that he will be the “second most hated man in the country” and that there will be costs to his family and to his firm. Heavy music and gun shots through the Donovan home as his spooly-headed daughter watches tv’s “Route 66” underscore his commitment to “everyone deserving a fair trial”.
Mark Rylance plays Tom Hank’s client magnificently. We care for this quirky Northern England born KGB artist and music lover. As the alias, Rudolf Abel, we get a portrait of a spy and a spy’s portrait. The respect and humanity of two characters doing what their governments can’t do without “losing face” is ironic, too. The dialogue is best between these two. The understatements are dour and funny (Coen brothers style). D: “you have failed to register as a foreign agent.” A:”Do many register?” D: “You don’t seem alarmed.” A: “Would it help?” Rylance is caught without his dentures and in his underwear,but he is royal in his attitude as a man doing his job.
Donovan sees insurance in keeping Abel alive. He tells his client that “a death sentence is not a forgone conclusion”. As Francis Gary Powers spies against the Soviets and is shot down in “the article”, or U-2 ,North of Turkey and is sentenced to ten years in his own trial, an exchange is set up. John Dulles thanks Donovan for foreseeing a prisoner exchange. With both spies having “headloads of information” a swap is in the best interests of both countries. East Berlin gets into the picture to complicate things.Donovan becomes even more of a hero as he negotiates for an imprisoned Yale student, Frederick Pryor, as part of the exchange. Two prisoners for one Donovan mandates.
I liked the portrayal of Americans as impatient. The scene of Hanks cutting line as he tries to negotiate the barricades are real,as are the passport problems as East Berlin tries to show its strength.When Abel stands with Jim on the bridge and says he can wait for Pryor to arrive,we understand a friendship is here and patience has its place.The bridge scene and the actual exchange are dramatic. We wait to see if the Soviets will embrace Abel. We wince when he is just shown the back seat. We will research what became of him.
The Berlin Wall scenes are beautifully done and mirrored at the end of the film in the young boys climbing the chain-linked backyard fences at the film’s end. Freedom is given another ring! This is what Spielberg does best: a tad Hollywood,a tad didactic,but with artistic framing.