Bridge of Spies
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Music by Thomas Newman
Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel
Tom Hanks as James P. Donovan
Amy Ryan as Mary Donovan
Austin Stowell as Francis Gary Powers
Dakin Matthews as Judge Mortimer Byers
Will Rogers as Frerick Pryor
The last couple of months has been hard-going for those wanting to see the annual flurry of Golden Globe and Oscar contestants. You had to be quick getting in to see them around us, because the Multiplexes soon had Star Wars – The Force Awakens on six or seven screens, and children’s films for Christmas on the rest of the screens. The big contenders like Bridge of Spies flew through. This has been great for business for the second-run community cinemas. Last week, all four showings of The Lady & The Van in Wimborne, Dorset were sold out and we couldn’t get tickets. This week Bridge of Spies is packing them in at the community cinema … the multiplex is only showing it at 6 pm Mondays in a studio cinema. So this month is catch up time on the big releases at one of the three community cinemas near us.
Bridge of Spies is the true Cold War tale of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, arrested in Brooklyn, and who was exchanged for U2 pilot, Gary Powers, after he was shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960. Powers was on a high level spying mission flying from Pakistan to Norway. The details in the film are all close to accounts. Powers ejected but couldn’t free his oxygen tube. He was captured but failed to use the suicide pin hidden in a silver dollar, as he had been instructed to do. Why an Irish rock band thought U2 a good name is a mystery.
Mark Rylance has the first 5-10 minutes of screen time and immediately intrigues as Russian spy Rudolf Abel. Spielberg had been chasing Mark Rylance for years. Rylance has became one of the few greatest, if not THE greatest actor in current British theatre. He has largely eschewed film or TV, but was cast as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall on TV. Speilberg got him, and got a sublime performance from him too. Theatre critic Michael Billington has described Rylance as a “shapeshifter”- he seems to change stature and size radically to fit the part he’s playing. Here, it’s slight, small, late middle-aged. In the play Jerusalem he’s the powerful beefy Johnny Rooster, and in Twelfth Night he played a tiny, birdlike Olivia in a black dress. Then Tom Hanks is so at the alpha end of A list that he gets his name alone over the film title. He did in Castaway too, but he was alone on a desert island for much of it. So you have two of the finest actors, at their peak, with contrasting approaches. The mix is fascinating.
Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, Tom Hanks as James P. Donovan
Tom Hanks has described how working with Rylance and his unpredictable pauses and hesitations was an education as well as keeping him right on his toes. Tom Hanks has by far the most screen time in his role as the principled, Constitution-abiding fair-play honest American Lawyer.
Abel and Donovan face the court
James Donovan was an insurance specialist lawyer, who was pushed into defending Abel so that the world would see Abel was getting a fair trial. He was expected to lose, and also expected to be reviled in Cold War America. Inevitably, he really tried hard to defend him … you know the plot. It’s in The Conspirator, where James McAvoy has the same role in 1865, defending those plotting to kill Lincoln and Seward. You’ve seen it a dozen times on TV from LA Law to Murder One to The Good Wife … the principled lawyer forced to defend the indefensible, citing the Constitution, and putting their all into it. A solid American storyline indeed, but done here with Spielberg’s expertise, a Coen brothers script and Tom Hanks in the lead role,
After the court case: Donovan is reviled because Abel got 30 years, not the electric chair
All this was happening as the Berlin Wall was being built, and after losing the case, Donovan is dispatched to East Berlin to negotiate an exchange of Abel for Powers. Being such a good guy, he insists on also freeing a young American student arrested on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall as it is being built. The CIA couldn’t care less about the student.
Cold, slushy, dull, ominously grey Berlin is created, as is a creaky filthy old East German train. Commuter train journeys are a running motif. In New York, Donovan feels the opprobrium of the Great American Public for defending a Dirty Commie Ruskie spy while on his daily commute. In East Berlin, he sees kids scaling the wall and being shot down from the commuter train window. At the end, when he’s been revealed as a hero, he receives smiles of acknowledgment on the train.
Building the Berlin Wall
Berlin is chilling. There’s a remark from Vogel, the East German lawyer (or rather government official), that the Russians insist on keeping the World War Two ruins intact and unrepaired as a reminder. It’s true too. They did. We were in East Berlin in 1991, and people pointed out the thousands of bullet marks in the Pergamon museum walls … it was the scene of intense hand to hand fighting in 1945. The Soviets had insisted the bullet and shrapnel scars stay unrepaired as a warning. Don’t try it again! In West Berlin, the bullet marks had largely been repaired. The Hitler bunker area had been left as it was in 1945, a stark, crumbling reminder. Reunification has seen new blocks of flats, the new parliament and the American Embassy rise in the area as well as the holocaust memorial. I somehow feel the skeleton ruins of buildings, and filthy pockmarked grass with lumps of concrete and twisted metal around the Hitler bunker should have been left exactly as they were. And who’d want to live in an apartment on top of it? This film conveys that 1960-1961 East Berlin, not the hip 21st century one. Perversely, with its preserved leafy 19th century streets, and spanking-new hotels, the old East Berlin is now far more attractive than its 1950s hastily built Western counterpart. However, I thought the street around Checkpoint Charlie was wider than that, but it may have changed.
Donovan and East German police
Quality? It’s Spielberg. Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance are the memorable roles, but every supporting actor just “fits the part.” Tom Hanks manages to be upright, intensely serious but still gets odd laughs, and throughout the East German sequence is supposed to be fighting a cold – good runny nose make-up.On the script, “fucked up” is the only swearing, and used just two or three times when Donovan is arguing with the CIA. How much more effective it is to use swearing sparingly, but with drama at the right time.
Thomas Newman’s soundtrack is powerful. He’s one of the SEVEN Newman family composers, along with dad Alfred, uncle Lionel, brother David and cousin Randy. The music is unobtrusive early on, as it should be, but builds to an exciting ending then beautifully melodic “return to the USA.”
Oscar predictions (January 2016) and I won’t alter them when all is known:
Best supporting actor, Mark Rylance.
Best original music: Thomas Newman
Already nominated for Golden Globes and BAFTAs.
MARK RYLANCE ON THIS BLOG:
Nice Fish by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins
Farinelli & The King, by Claire Van Kampen, Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015
Richard III – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Richard III
Twelfth Night – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Olivia
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, West End
La Bête by David Hirson, West End, 2010