Friday, October 16, 2015


Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies official site Even though the relationship between the United States and Russia is at an extremely low point right now, it's no comparison to the Cold War period. Back in those days, there was no such thing as cyber-attack. Information was gathered through good old fashioned espionage either by humans or by spy planes. Agents from both sides were occasionally captured, and a US spy-plane pilot was also captured by the Soviet Union in 1960. Based on true events during that time, the veteran director Steven Spielberg satisfyingly tells a spy exchange story in "Bridge of Spies" (USA 2015 | 135 min.). In plain old-school filmmaking style, he reenacts a captivating ordeal during an era that is both tense and fascinating.

In 1957, the Soviet Union and the United States are actively spying on each other through their agents during the raging Cold War. A quiet painter Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is one of those spies. When the federal agents storm into his apartment in New York City, he is remarkably serene and calmly requests to collect his teeth before heading to prison.

Despite the extremely hostile sentiment toward Abel from the public, Rudolf Abel is assigned a defense counsel—an insurance attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks). Although James Donovan has never defended a spy, he is competent, intelligent, and focused. But that doesn't mean he can change anything in Rudolf Abel's conviction because the trial seems merely a show.

However, when an American pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by the Soviet Union after his U-2 spy plane is shot down in 1960, the US government asks James Donovan to negotiate with the Soviets to swap Austin Stowell with Rudolf Abel. James Donovan not only tries to bring Austin Stowell back, he also wants to take home another American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) who is a prisoner in East Germany.

Bridge of Spies Official Site

It's interesting that even though the film's screenplay is penned by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen, the Coen brothers handed it over to Steven Spielberg instead of making the film themselves. Of course, Steven Spielberg knows what he is doing and doesn't disappoint us. He effortlessly and convincingly brings the '50s and '60s back on screen and straightforwardly unfolds an engrossing story. The film sometimes looks exceptionally unsophisticated and it makes you wonder if he made the film with one eye closed.

That languorous attitude becomes even more evident when the director includes some scenes that appear to be nothing more than stiff propaganda. For example, when James Donovan looks out of the window of a train, what he sees is a few people are shot dead while trying to cross the Berlin Wall. Yet, Steven Spielberg is able to make these scenes look less rigid and a little forgivable.

It's hard to think of anybody else other than Tom Hanks to play the warm, intelligent, patriotic, and all-around good-natured lawyer James Donovan. It's probably also a role that Tom Hanks can play without any preparation. But the film's most mesmerizing moments come from the terrific performance by Mark Rylance. He marvelously shows how Rudolf Abel never loses his cool and charm and is forever loyal and patriotic. More than once James Donovan feels alarmed by Rudolf Abel's usual calmness and asks Rudolf Abel if he is afraid. Rudolf Abel always amusingly responds with a question "Would it help?" Mark Rylance deserves an Oscar nod for his arresting portrait of this singular Soviet spy.

It's unlikely that the relationship between the US and Russian is going to roll back all the way to the status quo during the Cold War. This film serves as a reminder of that part of history with mixed feelings of nostalgia and fascination.

"Bridge of Spies," a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release, opens on Friday, October 16, 2015.

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