David Strat­ton and Stephen Romei re­view the latest re­leases

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - David Strat­ton

Bridge of Spies (M) ★★★★

Na­tional re­lease from Thurs­day

The Walk (PG) ★★★ Na­tional re­lease

Steven Spiel­berg’s first film since Lin­coln, made three years ago, opens in New York in 1957 with a se­quence fea­tur­ing fed­eral agents pur­su­ing Ru­dolf Abel (Mark Ry­lance), a sus­pected Soviet spy, through the streets and into the sub­way be­fore ar­rest­ing him. It’s the height of the Cold War, when school­child­ren are shown movies de­pict­ing the ef­fects of nu­clear bombs and ad­vis­ing them to “duck and cover” in case of an en­emy at­tack. Abel, a Soviet citizen, is to be tried on a charge of es­pi­onage and, be­cause the sys­tem is de­ter­mined to be seen as fair, he is ap­pointed a de­fence coun­sel.

En­ter Jim Dono­van (Tom Hanks), the sort of all-Amer­i­can sym­bol of rec­ti­tude and sin­cer­ity that used to be in­car­nated in movies by James Stewart. Dono­van is part­ner in a le­gal firm spe­cial­is­ing in in­sur­ance claims, but he’s re­quested by the Bar As­so­ci­a­tion and his boss (Alan Alda) to de­fend Abel at the up­com­ing trial. At first he is re­luc­tant to take on the as­sign­ment, but even­tu­ally he is per­suaded by the ar­gu­ment that Amer­i­can jus­tice is also on trial and that the as­sign­ment is his “pa­tri­otic duty”, so, although he fears (with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion) that “ev­ery­one will hate me”, he con­soles him­self with the knowl­edge that “at least I’ll lose”.

And hav­ing ac­cepted the as­sign­ment, he sets about ful­fill­ing his role with ab­so­lute ded­i­ca­tion, which — he quickly dis­cov­ers — isn’t easy to ac­com­plish. For one thing, the judge (Dakin Matthews) is openly hos­tile to the ac­cused and seems un­able or un­will­ing to ac­cept the fact that, as Abel is not a US citizen, he can’t be ac­cused of be­tray­ing a coun­try that is not his.

Bridge of Spies is inspired by true events, and the skil­ful and some­times witty screen­play, cred­ited to Matt Char­man and Joel and Ethan Coen, is, above all, a re­minder of how things have changed in the past 50 or so years. In the “war on terror”, a sus­pect such as Abel would likely re­ceive very dif­fer­ent treat­ment at the hands of the author­i­ties. But back then, de­spite the public anger at the theft of na­tional se­crets by en­emy agents and the gen­uine fear gen­er­ated by the pos­si­bil­ity — at the time many would say the prob­a­bil­ity — of a nu­clear at­tack and the re­sult­ing dev­as­ta­tion, he was given a fair go.

So the out­come of the case against Abel is a fore­gone con­clu­sion and the only ques­tion, re­ally, is how to pun­ish him. Here again, it’s the in­her­ently de­cent lib­eral lawyer whose in­stinct is to op­pose the death penalty in the strong­est pos­si­ble terms and who is far-sighted enough to see that, given the ob­vi­ous fact Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts to Abel are car­ry­ing out sim­i­lar ac­tiv­i­ties in the Soviet Union, it would be wise to treat Abel in the same way Amer­i­cans would ex­pect their own peo­ple to be treated if sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances arose.

All too soon, the sort of sit­u­a­tion Dono­van fore­saw comes about with the case of Gary Pow­ers (Austin Stow­ell), the pi­lot of a U2 spy plane as­signed to pho­to­graph Soviet mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions from a great height and to de­stroy his plane and com­mit sui­cide be­fore he al­lows him­self to be cap­tured. In the film’s most spec­tac­u­lar se­quence, Pow­ers’s plane is, in­deed, shot down and he fails to kill him­self. Fear­ful that un­der tor­ture he may give away vi­tal mil­i­tary se­crets, the CIA ap­proaches Dono­van and re­quests (de­mands is closer to the mark, re­ally) that he travel to Ber­lin and ne­go­ti­ate an ex­change of the two spies, though mat­ters are quickly com­pli­cated by the ar­rest by East Ger­man author­i­ties of Fred­eric Pryor (Will Rogers), a hap­less Amer­i­can stu­dent who found him­self on the wrong side of the newly con­structed Ber­lin Wall.

Much of the drama in Bridge of Spies is de­rived from the scenes in which Dono­van, a de­cent, dogged Amer­i­can with lit­tle or no prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of Cold War strate­gies, finds him­self ne­go­ti­at­ing with Rus­sian and East Ger­man spy­mas­ters who see him as an am­a­teur. The film’s the­sis, and the ac­tual facts seem to con­firm it, is that Amer­i­can right­eous­ness was more than a match for com­mu­nist tricks.

Hanks is per­fect in this role, and his calm, mea­sured per­for­mance and quiet sense of hu­mour bring the doggedly per­sis­tent Dono­van to life as a flesh-and-blood char­ac­ter, whereas in the hands of another ac­tor he might have seemed to be just too good to be true. And it’s in­ter­est­ing that Spiel­berg and Bri­tish ac­tor Ry­lance suc­ceed in mak­ing Abel al­most equally sym­pa­thetic. Abel is, af­ter all, only do­ing to job to which his mas­ters have as­signed him and is fight­ing the Cold War as best he can. The film makes him very hu­man, so that we care about his fate — and that’s no small achieve­ment.

Vis­ually the film is rich in de­tail, with Spiel­berg’s reg­u­lar cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Janusz Kamin­ski, evok­ing the drab colours of the late 1950s and early 60s ef­fec­tively. And it’s good to see that Spiel­berg the film buff re­mem­bered that one of the sem­i­nal Cold War movies, Billy Wilder’s Ber­lin-set com­edy One, Two, Three, would be play­ing in a cin­ema in West Ber­lin while all this skul­dug­gery was tak­ing place nearby. The Walk is also about a for­eigner who breaks Amer­i­can laws in New York, but the cir­cum­stances of Philippe Petit’s so-called crime bear no com­par­i­son with the events of Bridge of Spies. In 1974, Petit — who was ob­sessed with tack­ling dan­ger­ous high­wire acts — il­le­gally stretched a wire be­tween the twin tow­ers of the newly built World Trade Cen­tre and crossed the space be­tween the north and south tow­ers. His ex­ploit was de­scribed in the ex­cel­lent 2008 doc­u­men­tary Man on Wire by James Marsh — and it’s tempt­ing to sug­gest the new fea­ture film on the sub­ject, made by Robert Ze­meckis, is not in the same class as Marsh’s film.

Tempt­ing, but not en­tirely ac­cu­rate. Ze­meckis and his cin­e­matog­ra­pher Dar­iusz Wol­ski (who, like Kamin­ski, started his ca­reer in Poland) have shot the elec­tri­fy­ing scenes of the walk it­self with as­ton­ish­ing skill, us­ing all the weapons in the vis­ual ef­fects ar­se­nal to ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­fect, and in very ef­fec­tive 3-D into the bar­gain. These scenes, with Petit bal­anc­ing roughly 400m above the ground on what ap­pears to be a per­ilously thin wire, are nail-bit­ingly ex­cit­ing to watch, even though you know the out­come. Suf­fer­ers from ver­tigo: be warned!

On a tech­ni­cal level, then, Ze­meckis (whose CV in­cludes the Back to the Fu­ture tril­ogy and For­rest Gump) has pro­duced an ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment. Less suc­cess­ful is the cast­ing of Joseph Gor­don-Le­vitt as the joc­u­lar, risk-tak­ing wire­walker. In the very first scene of The Walk, Gor­don-Le­vitt, wear­ing an un­con­vinc­ing wig, is lo­cated near the Statue of Lib­erty with the ill­fated twin tow­ers in the back­ground: “To walk on the wire — c’est la vie” he de­clares, in a comic French ac­cent that would have made Peter Sellers’s In­spec­tor Clouseau blush. And this cru­cial in­con­gruity lingers through­out the lack­lus­tre treat­ment of the film’s lengthy es­tab­lish­ing se­quences.

Cru­cially, Ze­meckis never makes it clear what com­pelled Petit to un­der­take these reck­less acts, apart from the sug­ges­tion that he was “called” by the tow­ers. So de­spite the bril­liance with which the walk it­self is de­picted, The Walk fails to live up to ex­pec­ta­tions.

Tom Hanks, sec­ond left, Amy Ryan and Alan Alda, far right, in Bridge of Spies; be­low, Jason Gor­don-Le­vitt in The Walk

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