Bridge of Spies


Tom Hanks meets the press.

Tom Hanks meets the press.

(2015) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Peter McRobbie, Austin Stowell, Dakin Matthews, Eve Hewson, Jesse Plemons, Scott Shepherd, Lucia Ryan, Wil Rogers, Nadja Bobyleva, Joe Forbrich, David Wilson Barnes, Mikhail Gorevoy, Steve Cirbus, Billy Magnussen, Noah Schnapp, Jillian Lebling. Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Cold War was in many ways, anything but. While the Soviet Union and the United States weren’t shooting at each other, that didn’t mean there weren’t casualties.

Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is a painter living in Brooklyn. The FBI thinks he’s a spy for the Soviet Union and they are following him, although he manages to evade their pursuit. He picks up a nickel on a park bench and discovers the coin has been hollowed out with a message left for him inside. However, eventually the FBI catches up with him and arrests him.

Eager to make a good impression on the world stage, rather than summarily executing the spy the government is keen on putting Abel on trial. They engage insurance lawyer James V. Donovan (Hanks) to represent him. At first Donovan wants nothing to do with it; he knows that representing an accused spy would bring him into a spotlight he doesn’t want he or his family to be in; he knows that people will hate him almost as much as they hate Abel but he truly believes that every man is entitled to a proper defense and decides that this is the least he can do to serve his country after having served it well in the Second World War.

He undertakes to defend Abel, advising him to cooperate with the U.S. Government but Abel refuses. Donovan grows to admire Abel for his loyalty to his cause, even if that cause is diametrically opposed to that of his country. Donovan endeavors to give Abel the most vigorous defense he can, knowing the judge (Matthews) in his case is predisposed to let Abel swing from the highest rope in the land. Donovan pleads with the judge to consider sparing Abel’s life, arguing that it would be a good thing to have Abel in hand just in case an American spy were to get captured, not to mention it would make America look merciful in the eyes of the world.

As it turns out, they were about to get a reason to keep Abel alive when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Stowell), piloting a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, is shot down and contrary to his orders captured alive (his orders was to take a cyanide pill and kill himself before getting captured). The government, knowing that Powers has knowledge of their spy plane program that they don’t want the Soviets to have, discovers that the Soviets are making overtures for a prisoner swap through the East Germans and to Donovan. CIA chief Allen Dulles (McRobbie) sends Donovan to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange. However, the Berlin Wall is being built, splitting the city in two. Tensions are high and the East Germans have captured an American student named Frederic Pryor (Rogers) who was studying economics there as a spy. Everyone knows that Pryor is no spy but now there is another element to the mix – and the Soviet and East German agendas might be entirely different.

Spielberg is a master storyteller and in many ways he’s the equivalent of Frank Capra. Hanks as I’ve mentioned before is the modern Jimmy Stewart and like Capra and Stewart, Spielberg and Hanks make as dynamic a director/actor pairing as we’ve seen in the last 20 years (with the exceptions maybe of Scorsese/Di Caprio and maybe Burton/Depp in that mix. This is the fifth time the two have been paired together and they’ve never made a bad movie.

And neither is this one. Hanks imbues Donovan with decency without making him cloying. Donovan’s faith in the Constitution resonates and once more, he’s absolutely right to. Donovan – and through him Spielberg and writers the Coen Brothers – preach that the Constitution is our roadmap to guide us through difficult situations; suspending it or ignoring it lessens us as a nation. Considering how fast and loose we’ve played with the Constitution in our War on Terror, the lesson has an extra importance especially now.

Rylance, who has won his share of Tony Awards for his work on Broadway, nearly steals the show from Hanks (a daunting task) by creating a man who is loyal to his nation, intelligent but also a human being, who grows to respect Donovan for his own loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. The real Rudolf Abel was a complicated man and Rylance conveys that.

The movie really is divided into two halves; the first part in which Donovan defends Abel which is essentially a courtroom drama, and the second in which Donovan goes to arrange the exchange which is more of a Cold War spy thriller. The first part actually works a little bit better than the second although it is in fact a bit drier in some ways; while I suspect the average moviegoer will like the second half better (the first can be slow-moving), it is the first where the meat of the message is delivered and has much more connection with me, at least.

For those who lived through the Cold War, the fear of nuclear holocaust was a real one you lived with every day. Duck and cover was a real thing. It looks quaint to modern eyes but it was the reality of the situation. People fully expected that World War III would be the last war – and that war would be inevitable. People in America really thought the Soviet Union was as evil as Nazi German. The Soviet citizenry probably thought much the same about America.

In some ways we haven’t grown much past those days. We still need an enemy to fear. We still lose our shit when someone outrages us. We still think the constitution should be suspended when it comes to terrorists, never realizing that once you go down that road that you can never go back – and that constitution that has guided us and protected us all these years becomes a little less shiny, a little less secure. The lessons from Bridge of Spies are extremely important in that regard; that they are presented in a well-crafted tale is icing on the cake.

REASONS TO GO: Spielberg and Hanks make a terrific pair. Rylance gives Oscar-worthy performance. Period of history brought ably to life.
REASONS TO STAY: Plods a little bit. Feels like two different movies…
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some brief foul language and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed on the Glienecke Bridge near the end of the film is the exact spot where the events depicted in the scene took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Too Hip for the Room

The Debt (2010)


The Debt

Sam Worthington takes aim.

(2010) Spy Thriller (Miramax/Focus) Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, Jesper Christensen, Marton Csokas, Romi Aboulafia, Brigitte Kren, Istvan Goz, Morris Perry, Jonathan Uziel, Iren Bordan, Katya Tompos. Directed by John Madden

The thing about the truth is that it is rarely what we think it is. Often we are told one thing and the truth is quite another. Sometimes knowing that truth doesn’t set us free however; sometimes the knowledge of truth shackles us for a lifetime.

Rachel Singer (Mirren) is a retired Mossad agent who bears the scars of her vocation both literally and figuratively. Her daughter Sarah (Aboulafia) has authored a book about her career, particularly concerning a daring raid into East Berlin that was performed by a three-person team in 1965 in order to retrieve a Nazi war criminal. Although it didn’t end up well, Rachel emerged from the raid as a national heroine.

In 1966, Rachel (Chastain) was the junior member of the team which included team leader Stephan Gold (Csokas) and David Peretz (Worthington). They are in East Berlin to extract a former Nazi War criminal – Dieter Vogel (Christensen), the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau who performed hideous experiments on Jewish concentration camp residents and bring him to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes.

He is masquerading as an ordinary OB-GYN, so Rachel and David pose as a man and wife unable to have to date. The plan is set up meticulously with an escape route marked for them. However the plan misfires and they are forced to bring their prisoner back to their East German apartment while they try to find a way back home. Unfortunately, Vogel manages to escape his bonds and after a fierce struggle in which Rachel is scarred for life, she shoots him dead rather than let him escape.

But was that the whole truth? When Rachel’s ex-husband Stephan (Wilkinson) tells her that information has surfaced that puts everything she’s built in her life in jeopardy, she will be forced to take a journey to make things right, not only for herself but for her daughter, her team and her country.

John Madden is best known for directing Shakespeare in Love but he does pretty well in the taut spy thriller genre. There are some scenes that literally had me on the edge of my seat, cliche as that might sound. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has quite a cast to work with.

Mirren is one of the top actresses in the world at the moment and one of the finest of all time when all is said and done. She is one of the main reasons to see this – as always her performance is letter perfect. She plays Rachel as a woman haunted by that secret and embittered by the way her life has turned out. Her only saving grace is her daughter Sarah who is now getting sucked into the lie.

The rest of the cast is pretty impressive as well. Chastain, who has had a couple of exceptional performances already this summer in The Tree of Life and The Help adds a third (although this movie was shot well before the other two). Her character is as naive as Mirren’s version is worldly and jaded. She is certainly flawed, but her dedication is unquestioned.

Worthington gets a role here that plays to his strengths as an actor and runs with it. His David is cold, shut-off and haunted by the specter of the War in which is family was decimated. He is guarded and closed off, which Worthington can do well.

Wilkinson is another veteran actor who has a complex role to fill and he does it admirably. His character is crafty, devious and infectiously charming while Hinds, who plays the older David, is thoroughly haunted and destroyed, his expression one of a man who doesn’t expect anything in life but misery.

The problem with the movie is two-fold. For one thing, the 1966 and 1997 versions of the characters don’t really resemble each other and when it comes to Csokas and Worthington, it is easy to confuse them with Wilkinson and Hinds (who resembles Csokas more than Worthington). For the record, here are the correct pairings: Wilkinson (1997) and Csokas (1966) as Stephan, Hinds (1997) and Worthington (1966) as David and of course Mirren (1997) and Chastain (1966) as Rachel.

It also must be said the ending is a little bit hoary, although I must admit there was at least some tension in the scene, enough that it made it entertaining. The movie itself harkens back to the cold war thrillers of the 60s in many ways, although I have to admit it’s a pale echo of some of the better examples of the genre. Still, given the performances and the tension, I can recommend it without reservation for most audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Great cast. Some well-thought out taut moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending is unsatisfying. Not easy to match 1997 versions of 1966 characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of two movies that was distributed by Miramax whose release was delayed due to the purchase of the company by Colony Capital. The company eventually made a distribution deal with Focus.

HOME OR THEATER: Works just as well at home as it does in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Columbiana