Sunday, October 04, 2015

“Bridge Of Spies”– Movie Review



At the 53rd annual New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of Steven Spielberg’s cold war drama “Bridge Of Spies”, starring Tom Hanks.


When an insurance lawyer is sent overseas to work out a prisoner exchange with The Soviets, can he secure the Americans’ release or is he in over his head?


During the 1950’s and 1960’s, The Cold War raged between The United States and The Soviet Union. Why in the world is this relevant to an insurance lawyer like James B. Donovan (Hanks)? In this case, it’s because Thomas Watters (Alan Alda), the manager at Donovan’s law firm, has just informed him that because of his past as a criminal prosecutor, the FBI has picked him to be the defense attorney for Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet Spy stationed in New York City. Despite Donovan’s best efforts, the jury finds Abel guilty; one small victory for them is that Donovan is able to convince the judge to give Abel a long prison term instead of the death penalty, despite the fact that both the prosecution and the public are crying for his execution.

As the competition heats up between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the CIA recruits pilots from the military to go on spying missions; they will be tasked with flying over Russia in specially streamlined jets supplied with several extremely powerful cameras that will photograph the Soviet terrain from the sky. Among their instructions is that if the plane is crashing, they must destroy it before ejecting and if any of the pilots are in danger of being captured by the Russians, they must commit suicide. One of these pilots is Lieutenant Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who undertakes one of the first of these missions in 1962. The Russians spot his jet and successfully shoot it down, but Powers fails to blow up the aircraft before it crashes; additionally, when he parachutes to the ground, he does not take his own life and winds up being captured by the Russian army. The resulting trial naturally finds Powers guilty of espionage and he is sent to prison.

Once again, Donovan is called upon for his expertise – but this time, it is the CIA who reaches out to him. The Agency wants Donovan to use his negotiating skills to go to East Berlin and talk the Soviets into exchanging Powers for Abel. As he is briefed on the information, Donovan is informed that there is another American – Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) – that is also being held in East Berlin; Pryor is a graduate student in Germany to study economics and he was arrested because he was incorrectly believed to be a spy. Although the CIA tells Donovan they aren’t interested in Pryor, Donovan becomes determined to see the release of both men. But when Donovan meets with the East German representatives, will he be able to negotiate the release of these two Americans or will any potential deal fall through?


If you reduce things to their most basic ingredients, movies are about emotional manipulation.  Comedies are intended to make you laugh, thrillers try to scare you and dramas make you weep.  We pay for this when we buy a ticket at a theater or purchase a film to stream to our television (or the mobile device of your choice).  This is what we call entertainment.  The most highly regarded directors in this medium are specialists in manipulating emotions.  Steven Spielberg is among the best of them and he succeeds at this again in his latest, “Bridge Of Spies”.  

His protagonist – a quiet, modest hero – is ultimately redeemed after being reviled and in his own way, this lawyer finds his own form of justice.  Although this is Donovan’s story, Spielberg makes an interesting choice in terms of the two prisoners:  we wind up feeling more sympathy for The Russian Spy than we do for The American Spy.  Maybe this is because The Russian is given considerably more screen time.  Or maybe it’s because The American is not heroic; he is seen as cowardly because he did not fully carry out the instructions of his mission.  Then again, maybe it’s because The Coen Brothers contributed to the screenplay.

Once again, we are faced with a movie that has a difficult time maintaining a level of suspense because it’s based on real events that occurred slightly beyond the middle of the previous century; if you’re familiar with American history from this time period, you pretty much know how things turn out.  This being the case, the director already starts out at a disadvantage when trying to tell his story because many members of the audience already know how it ends.  Ultimately, it’s a history lesson that is made mainstream by virtue of its oversimplification. 

Bridge of Spies (2015) on IMDb

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