Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: "Bridge of Spies"

I've always enjoyed history, and am particularly tickled by the incongruous little stuff that doesn't break into the public consciousness. Like the Fourth Crusade, which set out to retake Jerusalem from the Saracen horde, but instead sacked the allied city of Constantinople to plunder its great wealth. Or the slaves who rose up against their masters aboard the ship "Amistad" and won their freedom before the Supreme Court, some of whom went on to become slave traders themselves.

History buffs, or those who just like a good geopolitical yarn, will probably enjoy "Bridge of Spies" as much as I did. The latest collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks, it’s the curious story-behind-the-story of the U-2 incident of 1960, in which the Russians shot down a U.S. spy plane, heating up the Cold War to the point nuclear war seemed possible.

Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a respected but unheralded insurance attorney from Brooklyn who found himself in the unlikely role of negotiating for the return of the American pilot.

He had previously represented a Soviet spy caught by the CIA, Rudolf Abel, and convinced the authorities not to execute him since they might need to use him one day for leverage. Donovan’s prescience was rewarded by being tossed into the cauldron of geopolitical intrigue, making cloak-and-dagger forays across the Berlin Wall as an unofficial negotiator for his country.

The screenplay by young Matt Charman was punched up by Oscar-winning veterans Joel and Ethan Coen, and is essentially divided into two parts. Roughly the first half is about Donovan’s representation of Abel, which causes strain in both his professional and personal lives. He becomes a public pariah for doing more than offering a token defense, even taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The second half is the negotiations in Berlin.

He comes to find a grudging respect for Abel, who is portrayed by Mark Rylance in a strong, restrained performance. Abel is completely guilty, an incongruous figure born in England who speaks with a strong British lilt, raised in Russia and a devoted patriot. Posing as a painter, he refuses to share information or acknowledge he’s a spy, though he does not take great pains to conceal it.

Donovan seems bewildered by the man’s preternatural calm, repeatedly asking him if he’s worried or scared about being put to death for espionage. “Would it help?” is Abel’s stoic reply.

In turn, Donovan’s wife (Amy Ryan), law partner (Alan Alda) and even the judge (Dakin Matthews) are perplexed and bothered by his diligence in defending a traitor who divulged secrets to America’s greatest adversary. He resolutely points out that since Abel is not American he cannot be a traitor, but is an honorable enemy who deserves to be treated as such.

Flash forward a few years. American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured while flying an ultra-secret U-2 plane. It causes great embarrassment to the U.S., as Powers failed to self-destruct his craft or kill himself with poison per orders. The CIA taps Donovan to set up an exchange: Abel for Powers.

The wrinkle is that the East Germans have also captured a young American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), and are holding him on trumped-up charges. Instructed by his CIA handler (Scott Shepherd) to concentrate on the pilot and forget the student, Donovan takes it upon himself to enter tense three-way negotiations between America, the USSR and its young German satellite country. His goal: two for one.

It’s a typically skillful performance by Hanks, playing a man out of his depth who compensates by rigging the game according to rules he understands.

The film doesn’t really get deep inside Donovan’s head, but “Bridge of Spies” is less character study than political thriller. It’s about spotlighting a key piece of little-known history, and somehow even makes lawyerly negotiations enlivening. That’s a masterful bit of cinematic subterfuge.

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