Much as Graham Greene alternated between serious novels and those he considered “entertainments,” Steven Spielberg has juggled the family movies and fantasies he is so well known for with historical stories that examine moral and social issues, movies ranging from “Shindler’s List” and Amistad” to “Munich” and his last film, “Lincoln.”
His new one, “Bridge of Spies,” falls most definitely into the serious category. It’s a true-life Cold War drama, one tinged with certain “thriller” aspects involving espionage and dangerous journey across the old Berlin Wall, that also touches on themes involving national paranoia, American jurisprudence and a world (then and today) increasingly reliant on espionage across all fronts.
Just as he worked fruitfully with screenwriter Tony Kushner for as long as it took to create the dense, complex political dramas “Lincoln” and “Munich,” Spielberg oversaw the creation of “Bridge of Spies” from an historical footnote to a fascinating film written first by English playwright and television writer Matt Charman and then further enhanced by the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel.
Spielberg’s story sense is uncanny — he seems to know where and on whom the focus needs to be every step of the way— and his narrative instincts in “Bridge” are never better. He finds his way into a complicated story surrounding the release by the Soviet Union of a captured American U-2 pilot in two very human characters.
The first entry point is the unlikely historical figure of James B. Donovan, a successful insurance lawyer from Brooklyn, who was approached by the American government to defend a suspected Soviet spy and then later to handle delicate negotiations for swapping that now convicted spy, Rudolf Abel, for pilot Francis Gary Powers.
Not entirely an Everyman — he was a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials and highly regarded in the legal community for his superior negotiating skills — he nevertheless is a man out of the spotlight and no doubt out of his depth when making his way through the dangerous streets of the divided city of Berlin.
Enough to get an audience to understand: hell, that guy could be me. What would I do?
Time gets severely compressed in the movie, but in 1957 Donovan defended the Soviet spy Abel when no one else wanted to touch the case. Despite losing, he did successfully argue against a death sentence and appealed the conviction all the way to Supreme Court despite the objections of many (including, according to the movie, his own family).
Then in 1962 he led negotiations with Soviet and East German authorities to free not only the captured pilot but another American grad student arrested as a spy (he was not) in East Berlin, Frederic Pryor.
James Donovan is played by Tom Hanks with a dogged honesty and keen insight into what moral courage really means. His James doesn’t want the case, and is only being brought aboard to demonstrate to the world that a Soviet spy can get a “fair” trial. Once he is defending the man, though, he does so with tenacity and vigor, more so than the government and a concerned CIA bargained for.
The other entry point into the story is Rudolf Abel himself. English stage actor Mark Rylance (TV’s “Wolf Hall”) plays the spy not as something out of James Bond but as a soft-spoken, even disarming soul, a man whose cover is that of a painter and even when facing a possible death penalty will allow himself a witty remark.
In other words, these two, James and Rudolf, are ordinary souls who learn to trust and respect one another even though on opposite sides of the ideological divide. Each side in the Cold War has such foot soldiers and in many respects they’re so very much like each other — convinced of their cause and loyal to it to their own peril.
You get throughout the movie Scenes from the Cold War — American classroom instructions on the Soviet’s nuclear menace, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) prepping for his mission, later the brick-by-brick construction of part pf the Berlin Wall. But what the film captures best is the utter paranoia of that era, where kids were taught to fear and people believed Reds were everywhere.
James and his family are looked upon with suspicion even by friends and neighbors because of his client. The movie even has shots fired through a front room window. I don’t know if that actually happened but you get the feeling anger really did run that high against James.
Certainly his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) worries for the family’s safety while a CIA officer (Scott Shepherd) leans on James to betray the attorney-client privilege even as the judge (Dakin Matthews) sees the case as a show piece rather than a real trial. Only James didn’t get the memo.
The later sequences in 1962 Berlin, in the early days of the Wall, are right out of a Cold War thriller by John le Carré or Len Deighton with all the falling snow, dark shadows, countless checkpoints, dank alleys and dangerous street thugs wandering a ruined cityscape.
Yet Spielberg is too astute to give this Berlin a romanticized noir feeling. Rather this is evil at its most mundane, a thoughtless, stupid environment which brings out the worse in nearly everyone save James. The CIA op doesn’t even give a damn about getting the poor student out of an East Berlin prison. Only James insists.
The film comes to the screen without any Spielberg flourishes or knock-out camera movements. Spielberg and long time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shoot the scenes like films of that time period — prosaic master shots, medium shots and closeups — all matter of fact and often overexposed due to light streaking through windows.
The one exception is the shooting down of Powers’ U-2. Now this is something out of a 007 movie with Powers hanging on for dear life as he is momentarily caught on the aircraft in its death plummet to earth before he can free himself and open his chute.
Whether in subways or U-Bahns, on the streets of Brooklyn or Berlin, in the Donovans’ just-so house or cavernous rooms Soviet officials have commandeered in the East for offices, the design of the movie is meticulous to the period as well as the zeitgeist.
It’s a postwar world that has expanded in one sense but contracted in another with distrust everywhere. This is in the eyes of people in New York and Berlin, in border guards, CIA agent and workers and clients in Donovan’s law office.
You can’t help seeing the parallels with today’s strident political rhetoric and chaos all over the world. What today’s world needs, the movie may be saying, is more James B. Donovans.
Later in 1962, the man traveled to Cuba to negotiate with Fidel Castro an exchange of all 1,113 prisoners of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion for $53 million in food and medicine. Who knows? There may be another movie in that story.
Opens: October 16, 2015 (Touchstone Pictures)
Production: DreamWorks Pictures, Fox 2000 Pictures and Reliance Entertainment present an Amblin Entertainment/Marc Platt production
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Mikhail Gorevoy, Will Rogers
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Marc Platt, Kristie Macosko Krieger
Executive producers: Adam Somner, Daniel Lupi, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production designer: Adam Stockhausen
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka Maimone
Editor: Michael Kahn
PG-13 rating, 142 minutes