David Stratton and Stephen Romei review the latest releases
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