Friday, October 16, 2015

Bridge of Spies: Riveting Cold War thriller

Bridge of Spies (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for war violence, dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.16.15

Atticus Finch lives.

Harper Lee is known to have based the iconic hero of To Kill a Mockingbird on her own father, Alabama lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee, who — like the book’s character — represented unpopular defendants in a highly publicized (and politicized) trial.

As the trial that might send Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, left) to the gas chamber proceeds,
defense attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is surprised to see his client remain so
calm. "Aren't you worried?" Donovan asks. Abel's response becomes the film's best
signature line.
How ironic, then, that at the same time Harper Lee was fine-tuning the novel that would make her famous, newspaper headlines across the United States pilloried the country’s most-hated lawyer, James Donovan, who had bravely accepted the assignment to defend captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.

I can’t help wondering if any of Donovan’s characteristics wandered into Lee’s depiction of Atticus.

Donovan’s name and historical significance have remained buried for decades, although Abel might ring a few bells. Sirens are likely to go off, however, when both men are linked to American pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was captured after his U-2 spy plane was blasted out of the sky during a photographic reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union.

The interlinked saga involving Donovan, Abel and Powers has been resurrected and transformed into a thoughtful, fascinating and thoroughly absorbing period drama by director Steven Spielberg and scripters Matt Charman, Joel and Ethan Coen. It’s Cold War-era spyjinks right out of John Le Carre, except that these events actually took place: yet another reminder that truth can be far stranger than fiction.

(The film credits make no mention of Donovan’s well-received 1964 memoir, Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers, which I find odd; it’s impossible to imagine that Charman and the Coen brothers didn’t read that book.)

Spielberg’s film is anchored by a commanding performance from Tom Hanks, who channels every dedicated and deeply honorable character ever played by Henry Fonda and James Stewart. At the same time, Hanks brings his own wry, subtle humor to this depiction of Donovan: a capable and hard-working family man caught up in events far beyond his imagining.

(Or so we’re led to believe. Given Donovan’s WWII service as General Counsel at the Office of Strategic Services, he may not have been as “ordinary” as this film suggests. But this portrayal makes for a better story.)

We meet Donovan, a New York attorney, during a pleasant but mildly charged after-hours “discussion” concerning insurance liability over a vehicular incident. The chat seems little more than our entry to Donovan’s charm, personality and persuasive skill ... but pay close attention to the nature of his argument. It’s a sly nudge toward events to come.

Back at the office, senior partner Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) takes Donovan aside and explains that he has been hand-picked to serve as defense counsel to the recently captured Abel. Donovan hesitates, knowing full well that accepting such a case will make him the second-most hated man in America, after only Abel himself.

But moral imperatives mean a great deal to Donovan, and we’re all familiar with the idealistic mandate: Every individual, no matter how heinous the crime, deserves a fair trial. It’s the American way. A clichéd sentiment, to be sure, but Hanks sells it: both at this moment, still contemplating the case behind the closed doors of Watters’ office, and many times to come, once thrust into the spotlight.

It comes down to this: So-called “corny” dialog only sounds silly when delivered by lesser actors. When given the proper emotional heft by somebody who understands how to deliver such lines, the words become inspirational, transformational. Presidents are elected on the basis of such oratorical expertise.

We never doubt Donovan for a moment. Spielberg clearly sees this strength in Hanks; indeed, the director has relied upon it many times, this being their fourth collaboration.

During smoothly cross-cut scenes, we’ve also been introduced to Abel (Mark Rylance), a dour, disheveled little man who lives in a shabby apartment and fills his time by painting. (A self-portrait is another nod to this script’s occasionally sardonic humor.) Rylance makes Abel colorless, humorless and utterly unmemorable: the sort of musty, dusty clerk who’d have been right at home as Bob Cratchit, figuring sums for Ebenezer Scrooge.

It’s a brilliantly understated, Oscar-worthy performance, which of course is precisely the point: Abel is the last person one would suspect of being a Soviet spy ... and yet here he is, prizing coded messages from a tricked-out coin. (In fact, the FBI investigation that leads to Abel’s arrest becomes known as the “Hollow Nickel Case.”)

Abel is indicted; shrill public sentiment demands his blood; Donovan takes the case. Historical context is essential here; bear in mind that only four years had passed since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Nuclear paranoia went rampant, as we’re reminded by those now-proven-inane “duck and cover” TV commercials.

Abel’s trial goes roughly as one would expect — Dakin Matthews making a strong impression as the unapologetically biased Judge Byers — but Donovan successfully manages a last-minute surprise.

By this point, Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn have been cross-cutting with another narrative, this one involving Powers (Austin Stowell) and several young pilot colleagues “drafted” by the CIA. This story moves front and center as the months pass after Abel’s trial; ultimately — on May 1, 1960 — Powers’ capture by the Soviets generates a fresh set of anguished American headlines.

The U-2 missile strike, and Powers’ desperate attempt to activate his plane’s self-destruct mechanism, represent a bit too much action-movie flourish by Spielberg and special-effects supervisor Steven Kirshoff ... but that’s a small matter.

Suddenly, and once again to his surprise, Donovan is re-immersed in CIA back-room skullduggery, this time acting as a clandestine American “emissary” sent to East Berlin to negotiate behind the scenes, over details that cannot be acknowledged publicly by either the United States or the Soviet Union. It’s a crazed, Kafka-esque nightmare: both amusing and quite dangerous, and superbly orchestrated by Charman and the Coen brothers.

I’m reminded of the similar Machiavellian maneuvering that intimidated the title character in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink.

By this point, the narrative tapestry has further expanded to include a CIA handler (Scott Shepherd, as Hoffman), a shadowy East German (Sebastian Koch, as Wolfgang Vogel), a frankly scary KGB officer (Mikhail Gorevoy, as Ivan Schischkin) and a young American student (Will Rogers, as Frederic Pryor).

Along the way, Spielberg transitions smoothly from sober courtroom drama to the methodical, slow-burn tension of classic 1960s Cold War espionage thrillers such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Ipcress File. Great stuff then: still mesmerizing today.

Bridge of Spies is several labyrinthine stories rolled into one, capably orchestrated by Spielberg, and firmly controlled by Hanks’ beguiling depiction of the tenacious and (at times) foolishly stubborn Donovan. The saga itself is mesmerizing, as is Donovan’s role in these events; we’re enthralled, and Spielberg knows it.

Amy Ryan is memorable as Donovan’s worried and far more practical wife, Mary: a voice of reason who knows she cannot win the core argument, but nonetheless tries. Stowell looks and sounds like a hotshot pilot, but we don’t get much insight into Powers as a character; he never quite rises above the role of “plot device” (which certainly wasn’t the case in real life).

Adam Stockhausen’s production design is impeccable. His recreation of late 1950s New York is impressive enough, but the bombed-out East Berlin locales are simply amazing.

Health issues forced Spielberg’s longtime music collaborator, John Williams, to bow out of this film: the first time in 30 years that they’ve been unable to work together. The score instead has fallen to Thomas Newman, whose efforts are so minimalist as to be unnoticed. Numerous sequences seem to demand orchestral accompaniment — at least in my mind — so we have to assume that the silence is a deliberate artistic choice on Spielberg’s part. Even so, it feels wrong.

But that’s a mere hiccup, as are the other minor grumbles cited above. Bridge of Spies is a sleek, thoroughly absorbing drama that feels right at home in its Cold War setting. It’s also a spellbinding slice of history that I fully expect to drive fresh sales of Donovan’s half-century-old memoir.

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