Tuesday November 24, 2015
Movie Review: Bridge of Spies (2015)
Everything is good about “Bridge of Spies” but the pace. There’s drama but no real drive. Since director Steven Spielberg reinvented pulse-pounding with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” et al., one wonders if this isn’t a conscious choice (reminding us of the pace of life in the 1950s) or an unconscious one (he’s 69 now).
OK, I didn’t much think of the color scheme, either. Not a fan of those muted grays and blah blues that Spielberg and longtime DP Janusz Kaminski seem to prefer now. The past didn’t always look like a winter day in Seattle, guys.
But I recommend the film. Start with two words: Mark Rylance.
What makes an actor compelling? At one point, Rylance’s character, Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, is talking with his lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) in federal prison, and says the following:
Standing there like that, you reminded me of the man that used to come to our house when I was young. My father used to say, “Watch this man.” So I did. Every time he came. And never once did he do anything remarkable.
It leads to a good, self-effacing line from Donovan (“And I remind you of him?”), and then a story, typical of Hollywood films, about The Man Who Keeps Getting Back Up. I quote it here because it reminds me of Rylance’s Abel. Never once does he do anything remarkable, yet he’s always remarkable. We’re drawn to him. As an actor, Rylance is able to convey a humanity and a depth of understanding at odds with the flurry around him. He seems quietly, sadly amused by it all.
Here’s another quote—a good, repeated line in the movie:
Donovan: You don’t look worried.
Rylance: Would it help?
Think of all the ways to say this line. It could be delivered with a slight sneer, or an eyeroll, or a as an insidery joke. And Rylance says it, yes, as a kind of joke, but not insidery; there’s almost a small bubble of hope at the end. His lawyer is a smart lawyer, after all, so maybe he knows something about American jurisprudence that he does not? It’s a voice that knows the ways of the world yet remains open to possibility. How lovely is that?
A few words about Hanks’ performance. Over the past 10 years, as senior editor of a legal publication, I’ve interviewed upwards of 250 lawyers. And Hanks’ Donovan feels like one of the most lawyerly lawyers I’ve seen on a movie screen. He exudes the profession: the quiet, plodding advocacy; the toughness in negotiation without seeming tough. He makes his arguments with a friendly face even as he’s working levers behind the scenes.
The trailer plays up his ordinariness—“I’m just an insurance lawyer”—but, c’mon, he’s a top lawyer who also participated in the Nuremberg trials. That’s why he gets the gig. Also because everyone else turns it down. No one wants to represent a commie spy in the middle of the Cold War. Look at what happens to Donovan for repping Abel:
- Ostracism: Exemplified by a woman on the train who gives him a dirty look.
- Professional setback: His law firm partners grow weary of his advocacy and shut him out.
- Violence: Shots are fired through his living room window, where his teenage daughter is watching TV.
For most people, even the judge (particularly the judge), the trial isn’t a real trial. We’re giving the world a show trial. But Donovan isn’t part of that game; he goes all out. Was there a search warrant? How much of the evidence against Abel is admissible? What’s the difference between a criminal case and a national security case? He winds up taking Abel’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and makes a strong argument there. Of course, he loses. That’s the first part of the movie.
The second part is the titular part. Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U2 pilot, is shot down over the Soviet Union and doesn’t have the decency to kill himself. So a trade: Powers for Abel, and Donovan is called in to negotiate things. Except it’s almost like “Mission: Impossible.” He’s not really representing the U.S. government, so if caught we’ll disavow any knowledge of his actions. Worse, Donovan is negotiating with both the Soviets and the East Germans, and each has their own agenda. He makes his situation more difficult by including in the negotiations an American economics student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who was caught on the wrong side during the building of the Berlin Wall.
I wonder about that impulse. Donovan is told repeatedly, by everyone, to forget about Pryor. He doesn’t. Why risk everything? That would be a good question to ask Hanks, or Spielberg, or screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman. Is it that he senses an opening? A weakness? Is it ego? Or is it just something in his nature?
As a man who can negotiate nothing, I’m fascinated by this impulse.
Take a bite and end it
Endings are not a bright spot for Spielberg. He’s the anti-Hitchcock in this regard. Hitchcock cut the cord quickly, and often beautifully, but Spielberg usually can’t let go. He drags things on.
I should add that I liked each of his possible endings of “Bridge of Spies.” But they do contradict each other in subtle ways.
The first ending is on the bridge. Before the exchange is made, Donovan, solicitous about Abel, asks if he’ll be OK in the Soviet Union. Abel says that if he’s embraced on the other side by the Soviets he will be; if not, not. And he’s not embraced. And the camera pans up and out.
That’s how Hitchcock would’ve ended it. But Spielberg continues.
We wind up on the transport plane back home, in which Powers gets the first taste of the ostracism he would feel for the rest of his life. Everyone ignores his attempts to explain himself. Everyone but Donovan, who tells him: “It’s not what people think; it’s what you know.” Then they settle back, these two very different men, and head back home, where, to different degrees and for different reasons, both are ostracized.
That could’ve been a good ending. But it’s not a Spielberg ending.
Instead, he shows us Donovan returning to his family, who thought he was on a business trip in England. But as soon as he enters his home, it’s all over the TV news about Powers’ release, and who negotiated that release; and his wife and little girl look up at him with eyes full of wonder and admiration. Then he goes upstairs and collapses on the bed.
The end? Nope.
Cut to the next day as Donovan takes the train to work. His story, and photo, are all over the front page of The New York Times, and that same woman who sneered at him before, who regarded him as a traitor when he was defending Abel, now looks over at him with understanding ... and pride. Donovan acknowledges her with a little head nod, then looks out the window of the elevated train and sees boys climbing fences in backyards; and it reminds him of a horrific moment in Germany when, from a similar elevated train, he witnessed two people being gunned down trying to get to the West. It’s a reminder that it continues.
Then we get an afterword about what happened to each of our principles. In 1962, Donovan negotiated the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners from Cuba (sequel, Steven?), while Abel led a long and seemingly satisfying life in the Soviet Union. The End.
Me in the audience: Wait, Abel lived? What about the non-embrace? Wasn’t that supposed to imply danger? Possible death? Why give us that scene and this afterword?
Then there’s the lady on the train. Doesn’t that entire scene, the need of it, contradict Donovan’s advice to Powers? It’s not what people think; it’s what you know. This is the Spielbergian corollary: “It’s not what people think; but, c’mon, isn’t it nicer when people think highly of you?”
I still recommend “Bridge of Spies.” It’s a movie about grown-ups and for grown-ups. There’s a certain propriety to everything, a set of expected manners. On some level, those expected manners are as vanished as the Cold War.