Tuesday, October 27, 2015

BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015): Negotiations During The Cold War

Like many other Stephen Spielberg movies made since about the time he decided to inform rather than just entertain, Bridge of Spies is a well-choreographed and mildly funny film.  Except for Munich, possibly his least popular film to date, Spielberg seldom directs or produces any films that are controversial or particularly challenging.  His films generally espouse the values of living in a democratic society with a moderately liberal message thrown in for good measure.  Bridge of Spies is no exception.

As evidenced by his last two films, Spielberg relies heavily on the screenwriter to put together an intelligent and coherent script.  Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for Lincoln in 2012, and Matt Charman and Ethan Coen wrote the screenplay for Bridge of Spies.  Spielberg also relies upon actors that can ably play their part.  Lincoln would have been far less successful without the screenplay and the tremendous acting talent of Daniel Day-Lewis.  Likewise, Bridge of Spies would probably have been a less than average movie without Mark Rylance playing the supporting role of Rudolf Abel, an alleged Russian spy during the late 1950s.

In the film (as in real life), Abel faced arrest for espionage in 1957.  A mild-mannered individual and amateur painter, he is also extremely intelligent, stoic, and likely guilty of everything charged.  Abel’s assigned an attorney, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who the FBI, the local bar, Donovan’s wife and the presiding judge expects to put up a good defense right up to the time when Abel faces execution.  However, Donovan convinces the judge that it would be best not to execute Abel as he had value concerning a possible future prisoner swap with the Soviet Union.  Also, not taking Abel’s life may also motivate the Soviet Union to also not execute Americans charged with espionage in Russia.

Donovan so effectively represents Abel that he and his family face the hatred of the American public for his defending a Russian spy.  At least in the film version of this story, bullets are fired through the window of his house – just over the head of his teenage daughter who is watching television. (The overwrought protests taking place just outside of Donovan’s home are typical Hollywood.)  Yet Donovan takes Abel’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to argue against the wrongful arrest of his client.  While not portrayed in the movie, he did also successfully argue before the court against any possible death sentence applied in Abel’s case.

Meanwhile, in 1960 Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down at 70,000 feet altitude over Russian soil in the infamous U-2 incident.  Donovan is now asked to step into negotiate a deal in East Berlin with the Russians and the Germans by proposing a trade of Abel for Powers.  Telling his wife he is going on a fishing trip, Donovan then heads to Berlin, gets himself involved in a variety of mishaps, and eventually negotiates for the release not only of Powers but also for an American college student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers).  Donovan not only needs to convince the Soviet Union of the wisdom of such a trade, he must also work with East German officials who are seriously offended by any inference their nation is a puppet government under the thumb of the Soviet regime, and therefore should not be at the negotiating table.  In any event, in 1962, due to Donovan’s successful negotiation tactics, Abel returns to Russia while Powers and Pryor came home to America. 

Bridge of Spies, 141 minutes in length, is another Spielberg film that was: “Inspired by actual events.”  This is his way of claiming to tell a true story while fudging on any detail that does not neatly fit into a pattern.  But while Spielberg tries very hard to tie up all loose ends, there’s too much we don’t know about the cold war for anyone to know precisely what took place regarding the release of Francis Gary Powers. 

Plus, for almost one half of the film, the filmmakers seem more intent on providing us a nostalgic look back at American life than telling us about a fascinating incident which occurs during the cold war – a time when the two great world powers were contemplating firing nuclear missiles at each other.  When Hanks, as Donovan, interacts with his onscreen family, Bridge of Spies borders on being a remake of a 1950s television family drama. 

Donovan, as played by Hanks, also seems too single-mindedly idealistic to accomplish what he actually did in life.  Donovan assisted Justice Robert Jackson while prosecuting Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg.  He met face-to-face with Allen Dulles, the former head of the CIA and Secretary of State during the Eisenhower Administration, to discuss negotiation strategies. He also argues an unpopular cause in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.  He later negotiated for the release of over 1,000 prisoners following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.  Because of Bridge of Spies, most individuals will now identify Donovan with a relatively bland portrayal by Tom Hanks.  Outside of Abel, no character in the film until near the end, seem impressed by Donovan’s intellect or accomplishments – including Donovan’s wife.

To be fair, Spielberg avoids sentimentalism whenever Rylance appears on the screen as Rudolf Abel.  Rylance recites many of his lines with comic understatement.  Despite being a Russian spy, we still sympathize with him as a human being.  We also clearly understand that he was doing a job that he may have believed in as much as Powers believed in his own role.

And as he always does, Spielberg is good in this movie at visually telling a story.  His going from middle-class America to East Berlin, still war-torn some fifteen years after World War II, looks precisely how we imagine East Berlin would have looked.

October 27, 2015
©  Robert S. Miller 2015

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