Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Film Review: 'Bridge of Spies'


The new Steven Spielberg film, “Bridge of Spies,” begins with a man in a mirror. The man is Colonel Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), and we see three versions of him in one frame: Abel himself, holding a brush; his reflected image; and a self-portrait that he is carefully painting, in oils. The whole thing is not just a dazzling composition with which to kick off a movie but a formal introduction to the world of espionage—a haven for multiple identities. The year is 1957, the winter solstice of the Cold War, and Abel is a Soviet spy. He lives in Brooklyn, and art is both his hobby and his cover story; he sets up an easel beside the Manhattan Bridge and, after a while, feels the underside of the bench on which he sits. There, stuck fast, is a nickel, which he takes home and slits open, like a chocolate penny, along the rim. Inside is a folded slip of paper, covered with code. We are only minutes into the movie, but anyone with a soft spot for tradecraft will already be melting with fascination. Abel, however, has been rumbled. The F.B.I., having observed him as fixedly as we have, bursts in and arrests him. The guy needs legal representation, but who will be man enough, or dumb enough, to defend a Red Menace at a time like this?

Enter James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks). He is an insurance lawyer, but he was on the prosecuting team at the Nuremberg trials, and his peers in the Brooklyn Bar Association have picked him for this thankless task. In the course of it, he will be hectored, repudiated, and gazed at with loathing on the subway; the house where he and his wife, Mary (Amy Ryan), live with their children will be shot at; and he will spend a night in a foreign jail. Nonetheless, by asserting the right of the accused to a fair trial he will uphold the Constitution—or, as he calls it, “the rule book.” In short, the role of Donovan verges on the saintly, and it is Hanks alone who stops it from tipping over. He unstiffens his lines, so that a statement like “The next mistake our countries make could be the last one,” which lesser performers would intone with thin lips and a set jaw, is made to sound as if it just occurred to him, with a rising tone on “last.” Hanks, often musing and always half-amused, hails from the grand rank of actors, like Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and Joel McCrea, who have mastered the ungrand. They make us believe that oratory, done right, belongs at the dinner table, or behind the counter of a store.

Donovan is not surprised when his client is found guilty, but, rather than quit the field, he battles on: first, by convincing the judge (Dakin Matthews) that imprisonment is more fitting than the death penalty, and, second, by taking the case to the Supreme Court. Donovan’s argument is that Abel is not a traitor but a loyal servant of his country, even if that country is a sworn foe of the United States, and that America has a chance to show its moral colors by treating him as equitably as it would one of its own citizens. (Public opinion, the film implies, is against that basic privilege. Even some other lawyers reckon that it’s time to let the matter drop.) But Donovan makes a further point. Imagine, he says, if an American were to be captured by the Soviet Union. Might Abel not prove handy as a bargaining chip? And lo, it comes to pass. A U-2 spy plane is shot down in Soviet airspace, and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), bails out. He is tried, convicted, and interrogated. Each nation now has a man with a head full of sensitive information being held by the other side, and Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie), the director of the C.I.A., asks Donovan to go to Berlin and arrange a swap. Game on.

All this is recorded history, one of the best recorders being Donovan, whose 1964 book “Strangers on a Bridge” guides us through the saga with a dry and courtly wisdom. (“When a judge compliments you, it usually means you have lost.”) It’s instructive to see how his account has been crunched and compacted into the screenplay for “Bridge of Spies,” which is by Joel and Ethan Coen, in consort with Matt Charman. This is the first occasion on which the Coen Bros. have worked with Spielberg, and it’s a happy merger. You feel a certain tautening of wit, plus a keen and very Coen-like awareness that clichés, which abound in the genre of the spy drama, are there to be flirted with.

Hence a fine scene of Donovan, complete with umbrella and hat, being trailed through the rainy darkness by a similar figure, and crouching down to hide beside a car—a maneuver that gets him precisely nowhere. Then, in Berlin, there is a gang of East German youths whom Donovan encounters in the snow. On the page, he marches through them, but the screenplay adds a mean little twist, by having them issue a threatening demand for his overcoat. He removes it, and spends the rest of the movie with a foul cold. My only regret is that “Bridge of Spies” could not find room for Abel’s cellmate, Vincent J. Squillante, the king of the garbage racket in New York. The spy taught French, apparently, to the Mafia hood. How do you persuade the Coens, connoisseurs of human mismatching, to leave that out?

There is a curious sense of well-being in settling down to “Bridge of Spies.” To place yourself in the hands of Spielberg and Hanks is to be assured of a tale solidly told, however bitter the anxieties of the historical setting. Is it possible, however, that the solid might congeal into the stolid and the dull? Well, the title is a drag, though I guess that “Bridge of the Extremely Capable Insurance Lawyer” would have been too much of a mouthful. And, while Spielberg has shifted in his choice of composer, from John Williams to Thomas Newman, the shift is not far enough. He should have taken his cue from Otto Preminger, who leavened “Anatomy of a Murder,” his courtroom masterwork of 1959, with the music of Duke Ellington. We even saw the Duke onscreen, playing piano with Jimmy Stewart. The lilt and the kick of the soundtrack didn’t compromise that movie. They gave it cool.

“Bridge of Spies” ain’t got that swing, so what’s it all about? It’s not about the U-2 missions, and certainly not about Powers, who comes across as a lunk. Nor, despite the set pieces in court, is it about the majesty of the law. No, the core of this movie is a standoff every bit as keyed up, and as gripping, as anything on the muffled streets of Berlin. What we thrill to is Rylance versus Hanks: the British actor, lauded for his stage appearances, but barely known to cinema audiences, up against the consummate Hollywood pro. You can see them prowling, probing, and wondering what the next move will be—or, in Hanks’s case, wondering whether Rylance will move at all. Admirers of “Wolf Hall,” on PBS, will have noted him as Thomas Cromwell, standing like a statue in the shadows, and realized, to their discomfort, that they could not look away. He does the same thing here, as Abel; we watch him watching everybody else, as if life were an infinity of spies. “You don’t seem alarmed,” Donovan says when they first meet, and Abel replies with a gentle question: “Would it help?” The Coens turn that into a refrain that beats through the movie, growing wryer and funnier each time—right up to the fidgety finale, where Abel is the calmest man in sight. You might suggest that “Bridge of Spies” plays everything a touch safe, and that its encomium to American decency need not be quite so persistent. But when a film is as enjoyable as this one, its timing so sweet, and its atmosphere conjured with such skill, do you really wish to register a complaint? Would it help?

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