Sys­tem check

Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES -

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

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