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Categories: Movie Reviews

AD Cooper gives us her take on Steven Spielberg’s new Cold war Drama “Bridge of Spies”, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. 

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Steven Spielberg’s 29th film, Bridge of Spies, opens today in the UK. It’s his fourth feature collaboration with Tom Hanks, and once again it shows the director’s ease with storytelling. This time, it’s based on a true story set in the depths of the Cold War in the 1960s.  I was able to see in advance of the UK release at a screening which was followed by a Q&A with both the director and the star.  Review contains some minor plot spoilers. 

A new view on the Cold War

James B Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a common-sense insurance attorney and a sharp negotiator with a loquacious turn of phrase. He has the innate ability to make everyone believe they’ve won.  Despite Donovan’s lack of recent criminal court experience, his senior partner (Alan Alda) insists that he defend a Russian spy called Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). The artistic Abel has been caught in New York handling secrets, and there’s a groundswell of opinion that he should be shot even before any kind of due process in the courts. 

Reluctantly, Donovan meets the inscrutable Abel in prison, and the difference in East and West attitudes make for a tricky alliance. No one expects Donovan to do a good job and he’s vilified for even defending Abel. However, Donovan manages to bring the case before the Supreme Court. Donovan reasons that the convicted professional spy Colonel Abel shouldn’t be shot as he’s not a traitor to America under American law, and anyway – he might be useful to swap for an American spy. Instead, Abel is imprisoned for 35 years, which outrages the American public and results in hate mail and attacks on the Donovan family.  

Meanwhile, the covert U2 surveillance aircraft are being deployed over the Pakistan border to snoop on Russia from 70,000 feet. Much importance is impressed on the pilots about destroying the plane and killing themselves in the event of being shot down so that the state-of-the-art American technology doesn’t fall into enemy hands. Francis Gary Powers is one such pilot, and he gets shot down on his first outing. However, he fails to destroy the plane or kill himself, and parachutes into Russian hands, where he is tortured and interrogated.  

Over in Germany, the Berlin Wall is just being built, and an American student Frederick Pryor (Will Rogers) gets caught on the wrong side of the wall and is arrested as a spy. 

Unable to crack Powers and gain any information, the Russians offer to exchange him for Abel (who also hasn’t shared any information with his captors). However, Donovan has also heard about Pryor and demands a 2 for 1 exchange.  Travelling to Germany with the CIA, Donovan is out of his depth venturing into the sub-zero temperatures of East Berlin, but never loses his nerve when negotiating with the Russians and the East Germans. 

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A narrative based on a real Cold War events

British playwright Mark Chapman discovered Donovan’s story while researching the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs fiasco.  James Donovan had been sent by President Kennedy to negotiate the release of captured American troops as well as many Cuban civilians. So what, wondered Chapman, qualified Donovan for this job? Not only did he discover that Donovan had negotiated the Abel/Powers exchange, but he’d also played an important legal role at the Nuremberg trials after World War 2. 

Chapman bought the project to Dreamworks, and Spielberg happened to wander along to hear his pitch on a slow morning and fell in love with the project. In an intriguing move, Spielberg asked the Coen brothers to do a draft of Chapman’s script, and their ironic wit and wisdom litters the tight script. Many of the best lines are delivered deadpan by Abel. Spielberg described their incisive contribution as a Coen-oscopy. That said, there are some scenes with no dialogue that move the story along very effectively. 

But what’s it like? Bridge of Spies is a slow, subtle and complex film with a lot of men in sharp suits exchanging a lot of dialogue (the women are sadly little more than cyphers). This is the Cold War in colour, and it looks great – fabulous design, costumes and attention to period detail even in the big set pieces in the USA and East Berlin. The weather and seasons add to the tone and mood, and the fear of ‘Reds under the bed’ is well portrayed.

During the post-screening Q&A, Spielberg talked about how John Le Carré had been an influence on the story, but he felt that he couldn’t beat the stark black-and-white style perfected in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) He wanted to do something different with more shades of grey.  

Claire Bloom and Richard Burton in The Spy who came in from the Cold

Claire Bloom and Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

In Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance revisits the quiet acting style that was so effective in the BBCTV series Wolf Hall. Here it’s an extraordinary performance: “inhabiting the silence and screen” in a way that is unusual in cinema. Hanks described this as a “slow, imposing method physicality”. This apparently drove Hanks nuts and created a slow-bubbling soft boil inside of him that he couldn’t have faked. The only odd thing is that the Russian Abel speaks with a Scottish accent for no good reason, which the Americans identify as ‘northern English’.

Spielberg described how the exchanges between Abel and Donovan were cut very hard, and didn’t work as a result. Finally, his long-term collaborator and editor Michael Kahn re-cut them, adding frames back that put space around Rylance’s measured performance and underlined Abel’s stillness, tenacity and self-confidence. As a result, these scenes are very strong.

Spielberg also talked about his editing process and how he no longer swaps edits and opinions with Scorsese and Brian de Palma. Instead, he doesn’t look at the edit for eight weeks, and he then returns with a fresh eye and makes most of the changes.  

Spielberg’s first choice for the role of Donovan, Tom Hanks, is Tom Hanks. You are never in any doubt that his decent all-American values will win the day, and you never really feel that he is in any real danger of failing or dying.  He’s only played an evil character once, in Road to Perdition, and certainly his portrayal of the tenacious Donovan is layered and beautifully nuanced.

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Rylance and Hanks in one of their too few scenes

Where’s the relevance for today’s audience?

Spielberg was delighted to point out how the Russians had helped make his film relevant by invading Crimea. Cyber-hacking and USA drone attacks are just the modern equivalents of Cold War spying and U2 spy planes. Once again, Russia is not a negotiating partner (recent events in Paris and Egypt aside). 

Bridge of Spies is definitely worth a watch. It’s Spielberg doing history well, and at times there are visual reminders of Schindler’s List.  For once, he doesn’t overcook the emotion and make it mawkish, as with War Horse. So when Donovan returns after his mission, Spielberg just lets the images and Thomas Newman’s soaring orchestration tell the story. 

Bridge of Spies is out now in UK cinemas. 

A D Cooper is a director, producer, writer and multi-media copywriter. She’s won awards for advertising writing, for screenplays long and short, written 80+ scripts for Ninja Warrior (Challenge TV) and published articles, short stories and joke books. Weary of waiting for someone to film her scripts, she started directing in 2010 creating a slate of short films including two corporates, a documentary and a museum installation. All of her fiction shorts for Hurcheon Films have been selected for international festivals, with Ace (2013) garnering five awards. Her most recent projects are an award-winning historical docushort Writing the Peace, a stage version of her World War 1 short film A Small Dot On The Western Front which she wrote, produced and directed, an experimental short film Spring on the Strand (selected for 3 festivals in the USA), The Penny Dropped (Award of Merit in a US shorts competition), and Home to the Hangers newly completed for the Directors UK Alexa Challenge 2017.

Posted on Nov 26, 2015

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