Sunday, March 20, 2016

Spielberg's Absorbing Cold War Thriller

In a world that is much more focused on the internet, Twitter feeds & reality TV, history is a subject that often seems relegated to the background. Some of you may know about Francis Gary Powers, a pilot who was captured by the Russians after his plane was shot down during a reconnaissance mission in 1960; he was later returned to the United States. But do you know the whole story? Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies gives us the full details of this incident from the days of the Cold War.   The film opens in 1957, with the capture of Rudolf Abel, a suspected Soviet spy. Abel refuses to cooperate with the US government and provide information about Soviet intelligence agents, so he is put on trial for treason.

James Donovan, an attorney who worked on the prosecution of Nazi war criminals during the Nuremburg trials, is assigned to defend Abel. Donovan is now an insurance lawyer, and while the government just wants to get things over with and show that Abel was given a “fair trial,” Donovan tries to do right by his client. The attorney is harassed & vilified by the public (and to some extent, the media) for defending a Communist spy. While he loses the case, he succeeds in having Abel’s sentence set to life in prison, arguing that it might be beneficial to have Abel alive in case the Unites States ever needs to do a prisoner exchange. He’s proved right when Francis Gary Powers is shot down & captured by the Soviets. Donovan is enlisted to help guarantee the return of Powers, in exchange for Abel. But it will all have to be done in secret; this is not an "official" mission.

The film charts Donovan’s experiences in Germany as he negotiates for the swap of the two men. While there, he finds himself in the midst of political turmoil as the Berlin Wall goes up, separating the East & the West. Donovan also tries to free an American graduate student named Frederic Pryor, who is captured in East Berlin and branded a spy. He gets little very support from the US, and is caught between the German & Russian governments, who don’t seem motivated to complete the process of making the exchange. Can Donovan help free both men and get them home? And what will happen to Rudolf Abel when he is returned to Russia? That idea also weighs heavily on Donovan’s conscience.

If you’re looking for an action film, this isn’t that type of movie. Bridge of Spies is a more cerebral type of thriller. While it may compress the timeframes & some events, it’s a powerful story that truly gives you a feeling of what the world was like during the height of the Cold War. The movie is less sentimental than some other Spielberg films, but the somber tone fits well with the film’s setting, a time in Americans were worried that a nuclear attack could happen at any moment. Tom Hanks does his usual solid job as Donovan, but Mark Rylance walks away with the acting honors as Rudolf Abel. He recently won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, beating out the sentimental favorite, Sylvester Stallone who reprised his role as Rocky Balboa in Creed.

The excellent supporting cast includes Amy Ryan, Alan Alda and Jesse Plemons. The appropriately moody cinematography is by longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski. The evocative screenplay is by Matt Charman, and Joel & Ethan Cohen. Bridge of Spies is an engrossing tale of Cold War espionage that also sheds light on some important events in our past. It tells the story of one man’s determination to see that justice is done, and that we do right by (and keep our word to) our fellow countrymen who are in need of help. Highly recommended. The film is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and various on demand services. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

This week's post is dedicated to KR, a friend of this blog who's going through some tough times & health issues right now. Thanks for all the support, KR and hope you feel better soon!

1 comment:

  1. I was debating whether to rent this from Amazon or to wait for its cable release. Because of this superb review, I think I'll watch it now!

    Thanks, John!