Monday, February 22, 2016

Film Review: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies poster

In 1957 Brooklyn, New York, reclusive amateur painter Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is sat in jail accused of being a soviet informant after having his home raided by the FBI.  After refusing to put up a fight, he awaits his trial and is introduced to successful law partner James B. Donavon (Tom Hanks), who has reluctantly taken his case. 

The prosecutors, his law-firm partners, the public and even the judge all want Donavon to lose the case, yet after the inevitable guilty verdict, his strong belief in fair representation and the constitution convince him to appeal the conviction and spare Abel the electric chair.

Meanwhile, Francis Gary Powers an American pilot is shot down over the Soviet Union during a secret U-2 spy mission at the same time as an American economics student finds himself on the wrong side of the newly erected Berlin Wall.  Donavon has shrewdly predicted this eventuality and begins to negotiate a prisoner of war swap between the two super-powers. 

Set just after the brutal paranoia of early ‘50s McCarthyism, Bridge Of Spies depicts the true beginnings of the Cold War.  Just at the erection of the iron curtain, and a few short years before the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, America and the Western occupiers of Berlin are adjusting to the tensions between the two global empires.  Yet in 2015 and the age of ISIS, Al Qaeda, drone strikes and cyber attacks, there is something tamely anachronistic in focusing (yet again) on the Cold War.  Much like the Roaring Twenties and the Wild West, Hollywood seems so obsessed with the 1950s that it is hard to be greatly inspired by another film set in this period.

Having said that, early in the film as Donavon is appealing Abel’s guilty verdict up to the Supreme Court, he is recognized on the subway by citizens whom unanimously scowl at him in disgust above their newspapers.  By defending the rights of the enemy, he has opened himself to accusations of subversion and treason.  This simplistic us-and-them mentality has thrived in America since 9/11, with the Middle East replacing Russia as the geopolitical bogeyman.  And with ISIS’ tendacy to treat war prisoners/hostages with worse than contempt, maybe the level-headed diplomacy of James Donavon could be a relevant message for whoever succeeds Obama in the Oval Office.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by the Coen Brothers and photographed by Janusz Kamiński, Bridge of Spies feels like it should be much more than the sum of its parts.  Yet for all of its realism, lengthy dialogue and (intentionally) dank set design – bereft of hope and optimism under a new era of Eastern communism/fascism – the film feels as miserable as the oppressive system that it depicts.  I felt like a prisoner-of-war-films, trapped in its claustrophobic interiors learning very little about what was happening outside…

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