Review – Bridge Of Spies

Tom Hanks plays the (sort of) spy who came in with a cold in Steven Spielberg’s effortlessly polished and absorbing character drama whose themes, sadly, still resonate as strongly today as they did more than half a century ago.

Bridge Of Spies certainly won't leave you cold and finds Spielberg, unlike his protaganist, in rude health

Bridge Of Spies certainly won’t leave you cold and finds Spielberg, unlike his protagonist, in rude health

While the canvas may not be as broad as some of his blockbuster fare, the dramatic stakes at the heart of Spielberg’s latest are high indeed.

Bridge Of Spies shares more than a passing similarity to the bearded one’s previous feature, Lincoln (2012) – both involve backroom negotiations driven by an idealist where potentially world-changing consequences pivot on their success or failure.

"Would it help?": James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) and suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in Bridge Of Spies

“Would it help?”: James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) and suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in Bridge Of Spies

In this case, that responsibility falls to insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks), who takes on the defence of suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) against the wishes of his wife Mary (Amy Ryan). Instead of simply going through the motions to facilitate Abel’s guilt, Donovan vigorously defends his client and marks himself out as a troublemaker by the CIA and a Soviet sympathiser by the media and wider public.

His foresight in keeping Abel away from Death Row sees him drafted in to travel to the newly walled off East Berlin in 1961 to negotiate under the radar for the exchange of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U.S pilot whose U-2 reconnaissance mission was dramatically curtailed.

The public take against lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) and his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) in Bridge Of Spies

The public take against lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) and his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) in Bridge Of Spies

For someone who has revisited World War Two so often throughout his career, it’s perhaps surprising Bridge Of Spies is Spielberg’s first Cold War movie. A desolated post-war Berlin is evocatively captured by the director and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński and the chaos surrounding the erection of a wall that would remain in place for almost 30 years is both unsettling to watch and masterfully handled.

Spielberg employs subtle touches to imply a deeper meaning, such as the use of mirrors to symbolise what is both real and illusion alongside Abel’s skill as a portrait artist to present both himself – and others – in a certain light. Abel’s sniffle at the start of the film is also nicely reflected later on when Donovan develops a cold whilst in sub-zero Berlin.

U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) has his day in court in Bridge Of Spies

U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) has his day in court in Bridge Of Spies

The film’s themes of tolerance, fairness and what makes Americans American (an adherence to the U.S Constitution as Donovan not unreasonably sees it) draws inevitable parallels to events that continue to unfold in this turbulent century.

Donovan puts his head on the block in seeking to give Abel a fair trial arguing that, whilst his ideology may be anathema to that of most Americans, he remains “a good soldier” who is only doing what he believes to be right. Whether that sort of defence would be accepted by many in today’s society is among the many things that can be taken away from this spirited production.

Hanks, as always, delivers a highly watchable performance in a central role that could so easily have been played by Burt Lancaster or James Stewart had Bridge Of Spies been filmed some decades earlier. Aided by Joel and Ethan Coen’s polish of Matt Charman’s original script, Hanks has a blast in a part that allows him to deliver all-American dialogue with a twinkle in the eye.

Lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) alongside the newly constructed Berlin Wall in Bridge Of Spies

Lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) alongside the newly constructed Berlin Wall in Bridge Of Spies

As good as Hanks is, however, he’s acted off the screen by Rylance, who has been a king of the stage for many years but now appears to be increasingly transitioning to TV and film work (let’s forget his recent cheque-chasing turn in Sean Penn’s geri-action flick The Gunman though). Employing a less-is-so-much-more technique, Rylance’s quietly inquisitively body language and measured demeanour keep you transfixed as you try to work out what’s going on behind those eyes, while his scenes with Hanks are some of the best interplay you’ll see this year.

Special mention must also go to Thomas Newman’s pleasingly restrained score. So often, Spielberg’s films are ill-served by abundant soundtracks, but Newman keeps things relatively low-key and scenes are often allowed to play out without the use of a score.

Bridge Of Spies certainly won’t leave you cold and finds Spielberg, unlike his protagonist, in rude health.

Great Films You Need To See – Fail Safe (1964)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece about Sidney Lumet’s Cold War thriller Fail Safe was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

No doubt frazzled by the Cold War running ever hotter, it’s perhaps not surprising audiences in 1964 preferred their nuclear scare movies to be in the mould of the scabrously satirical Dr Strangelove rather than the grimly portentous Fail Safe.

No film before or since has played out the nightmarish endgame of Mutually Assured Destruction to quite such a chilling and methodical degree

No film before or since has played out the nightmarish endgame of Mutually Assured Destruction to quite such a chilling and methodical degree

As the cold horror of what is unfolding dawns on America’s top brass, the President (played by Henry Fonda) engages in an increasingly desperate exchange with his Russian counterpart via telephone to find a way to stop the bombers from triggering World War III before it’s too late.

The tension builds as the President (Henry Fonda) and his interpreter (Larry Hagman) talk to the Russians in Fail Safe

The tension builds as the President (Henry Fonda) and his interpreter (Larry Hagman) talk to the Russians in Fail Safe

Director Sidney Lumet stages the film in a similar fashion to his 1957 debut 12 Angry Men. The drama plays out in several locations, each of them boiler rooms of fetid tension where the temperature is mercilessly cranked up to the point where a number of characters crack under the strain. Even Fonda’s President loses his cool as the terrible reality of what is happening sinks in.

By doing relatively little with the camera and refusing to pull away, Lumet is able to poison the atmosphere with a thickening dread; so much so that when Larry Hagman’s interpreter’s hands start to shake as he drinks a glass of water we question whether he’s acting or not.

The pressure builds in the War Room in Fail Safe

The pressure builds in the War Room in Fail Safe

The only one who seems unphased is Walter Matthau’s coldly analytical civilian advisor Professor Groeteschele, who is seen at the start of the film at a dinner party calmly rationalising how 60 million deaths should be the highest price America is prepared to pay in a war. The ultimate utilitarian, Groeteschele sees the unfolding tragedy as a golden opportunity to wipe Russia off the map to ensure that American culture, whatever’s left of it, survives. Ironically, his uber-hawkish outlook shocks even the most senior military brass.

The film explores the duality we feel towards technology through the banks of dials, buttons and flashing lights at Strategic Air Command headquarters and the imposing screen displaying the whereabouts of military assets and targets across the world.

The detestable Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) coldly rationalises nuclear war in Fail Safe

The detestable Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) coldly rationalises nuclear war in Fail Safe

Implicit trust has been placed in the instruments, which General Bogan (Frank Overton) confidently states are so good “they can tell the difference between a whale breaking wind and a sub blowing its tanks”. However, it’s this same technology that betrays us by sending the ‘go code’ to the bombers. We are all of us Dr Frankensteins, Fail Safe implies, courting our own destruction through our insatiable hunger for ever more sophisticated technology (a concept more colourfully explored in the Terminator franchise).

Fail Safe concludes with a disclaimer courtesy of the Department of Defense and US Air Force that safeguards and controls are in place to ensure the film’s events can never come to pass. It’s unlikely that would have made anyone watching Fail Safe back in 1964 any more comfortable in their beds.