Bridge Of Spies (2015)
***These are historical events, so spoilers do not apply***
Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I consider Tom Hanks to be overrated as an actor. With some notable exceptions, I also consider film-maker Stephen Spielberg to be over-sentimental to the point of mawkishness most of the time too. So, here’s a film starring the first, and made by the second, and what am I doing watching it? The answer is easy, Mark Rylance. The talented British actor co-stars, and I enjoy watching (almost) anything he appears in. I just had to give it a go.
The film is based on the true-life events of spy exchanges during the Cold War, and the 1960 case of US Pilot Gary Powers, who was famously shot down whilst flying a U-2 spy plane to take photos over Russia. Not long before that happened, a Soviet spy was caught in New York, and put on trial for espionage. Their lives converge when an exchange is suggested, and the film follows those events closely.
I am never one to deny talent and skill deliberately, and on this occasion, Hanks steps up admirably. He cements his reputation as the ‘new James Stewart’, with a solid performance as the lawyer appointed to defend the Russian spy, Abel. (Mark Rylance). He plays the real-life insurance litigator, James Donovan, who finds himself nominated by the bar council to defend Abel. He is not expected to win, and the defence is simply a sop to the reputation of the authorities, as an indication that Abel got a fair trial before being convicted. But they didn’t count on Donovan’s inherent integrity, or the fact that he grows to respect Abel for his dedication and determination.
Meanwhile, we see the U-2 pilots in training, sworn to secrecy by their new employers, the CIA. The flimsy aircraft are little more than flying cameras, and the men piloting them are expected to commit suicide if caught. Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is an accomplished pilot, and one of those chosen to fly a mission deep into Russian territory.
Anderson is barely allowed to defend his client. Evidence is gathered without warrant, and civil liberties ignored. The CIA harasses him, and the trial judge makes it clear that only a guilty verdict is acceptable. Due process of law is overturned, much to the annoyance of the dedicated lawyer, who becomes hated by the general public for his staunch attitude, and suspected by his colleagues for the same reason. When the guilty verdict is delivered, Anderson appeals to the judge to withhold the death penalty, and is satisfied when Abel is imprisoned instead.
When Powers is paraded on television after his capture by the Russians, the head of the CIA enlists the help of Donovan to arrange an exchange for Abel, something he has to undertake without official sanction, and little help from anyone. He travels to East Berlin at the height of the Berlin Wall crisis, and begins the difficult negotiations.
OK, it’s a spy story, and based totally on real events, and real people. But it really is an excellent film, nonetheless. Spielberg managed to ladle off the schmaltz, and Hanks gave a completely convincing performance. Then Rylance simply shone as Abel. He received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role, and earned every inch of it. The period is flawlessly recreated; from the clothes to the street signs, the cars, aircraft, and even TV shows seen in rooms. The Cold War fears and paranoia are brilliantly handled too. It’s a very long film, at 2 hours and 42 minutes, but I was never once distracted, or lost interest.