BRIDGE OF SPIES, historical drama, rated PG-13, Regal Stadium 14
& Violet Crown, 3 chiles We remember the Eisenhower years as plain vanilla boring. But it was the heyday of the Cold War, when schoolchildren were taught to “duck and cover” in the event of nuclear attack, which a lot of people expected at any moment.
In 1957, the FBI nabbed a Russian spy in Brooklyn who had been embedded there for nearly a decade, collecting atomic secrets for the Soviets (he’s thought to have visited Santa Fe). The name he gave was Rudolf Abel. He was tried and convicted for espionage, and subsequently traded for an American, the U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down while flying a spy mission over the Soviet Union.
This was a huge story at the time, and Steven Spielberg has brought it back in a cinematic history lesson that is sometimes accurate, sometimes misleading. From the movie, you’d never guess that the U-2 incident came three years after Abel’s arrest, and that the exchange of spies on West Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge followed another two years after that. But this is a movie, where they rearrange things for dramatic purposes. We look to historical movies for the feel, but not necessarily the facts, of history.
The narrative centers on James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a Brooklyn insurance lawyer and former Nuremberg prosecutor who is drafted to represent Abel and uphold the image of the American justice system. As he works with Abel (Mark Rylance) and gets to know him, a bond of admiration forms between the two.
Spielberg, working from a script by Matt Charman (Suite Francaise) that’s been heavily (and wittily) doctored by the Coen brothers, has constructed an often absorbing but unbalanced tale of two systems, Soviet and American. Donovan insists, against enormous pressure, on giving his client a full-throated defense in the American constitutional tradition, reasoning that his job is to show that our system is better than theirs. Abel, magnificently played by Rylance (Wolf Hall’s Thomas Cromwell), is a fully realized and sympathetic character. Powers (Austin Stowell) barely registers. Abel is well-treated; Powers and Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student trapped by circumstance on the wrong side of the just-built Berlin Wall, are brutalized by their Communist captors.
The first half of the movie, which deals primarily with Abel and his representation by Donovan, hums along nicely, despite an occasional Spielbergian weakness for movie cliché. The second half, which sets Donovan to work arranging the swap, has too many threads to follow, and loses focus. But it’s epic dramatic stuff, as Donovan, who has prevailed upon the sentencing judge to spare Abel’s life in case he might be needed as a bargaining chip, makes full use of that potential as he insists (to the consternation of the CIA) on a two-for-one deal that will free both Americans or neither.
Hanks is iconic as the American lawyer who refuses to be swayed by Cold War hysteria and sticks to his and his country’s principles. The feel of the era, both physically and emotionally, is beautifully rendered. The movie reaches a powerful dramatic climax on the bridge, and then sputters on a little further, reaching for a feel-good ending. — Jonathan Richards
Coming in from the cold: Tom Hanks