Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bridge of Spies Nearly Perfect

Steven Spielberg's newest film is the historical spy thriller Bridge of Spies.  While Spielberg and company do occasionally take a few side-steps from historical accuracy, the movie is nearly perfect in its storytelling.  Spielberg has long ago mastered storytelling without heavy exposition, narration, or burdensome dialog.  He tells his stories the way the medium of film should: simply and visually.

To do this, he also works with the best and he has that in spades through the skills of Tom Hanks who plays historical lead character, insurance lawyer James Donovan.  Yes, there really was a James Donovan and yes, he really did go into East Berlin, alone and armed only with his wits to negotiate the release of Gary Powers, the U2 spy plane pilot who was shot down while flying over a Soviet missile installation. Okay, okay, James Donovan was not really quite the lone wolf and without support that is portrayed in the movie.  The fact is that JFK and Nikita Khrushchev had been working on trying to take back the escalating Cold War far before the Powers' exchange following the near call of nuclear war in October of 1960.  So the real James Donovan had the way paved a little better, but that is not really what the movie is about.

Hanks is an astonishing actor.  It seems to me that I write that sentence every time I review one of his movies.  His ability to emote every thought and feeling in a single moment of film astonishes me every time I see him do it.  He tells the story.  He doesn't need dialog or narration, just his consummate skill as an actor who understands his job. It is this skill that makes the movie work on the level it does.

Hanks is surrounded by a host of actors who also have skills but the two that also clearly make the movie work are Amy Ryan who plays Mary Donovan and Mark Rylance who plays the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  Ryan, as the wife to Hanks' Donovan, has great chemistry with her on-screen husband.  Like Hanks, she doesn't need a lot of dialog to communicate her complex and loving relationship to the complicated life her husband finds himself in.

Mark Rylance gives Rudolf Abel something that few Soviet spies have ever been given, humanity.  Abel is a man of honor who is doing his job.  He is, in every sense, an enemy combatant whose simple humor and honest performance makes him no just "the enemy" but a human who has decided to serve his country, just as American spy Gary Powers who is played by Austin Stowell.  We don't really get to know much about Powers, but there is plenty on the real Gary Powers.

If the movie has any fault, it is that it tries to tell too large of a story.  While the reaction to Donovan's defense of Abel is important and the training and selection of the U2 pilots are
important, it may be overly detailed in the movie.  The tensions between the US and the USSR are important, particularly for a younger audience. The silliness of duck and cover and the fear that some felt was the coming and inevitable nuclear war - that fortunately never came - is adds to the feel of the film too, but may also be a bit over-stated.

What is important is that Donovan is a man of principle who believes that without the rights of the Constitution being given to every person regardless of who they are or where they are from, we will fail in what is our single greatest achievement, a document for all people.  Donovan, who really did engineer the additional trade for an imprisoned college student, becomes a remarkable "standing man" who when knocked down, always stands again.  He stands on his ideals and beliefs.  He stands on justice.

Bridge of Spies is well worth your time if for not other reason it is a good spy thriller too.