Film Review: BRIDGE OF SPIES
BRIDGE OF SPIES
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Scott Shepherd, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Koch
Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directed by Steve Spielberg
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Marc Platt, Kristie Krieger
Music by Thomas Newman
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
Edited by Michael Kahn
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Quite similarly to Ridley Scott’s recent “The Martian,” Steven Spielberg’s excellent early-Cold War-era spy thriller “Bridge of Spies” has been released this month, on Friday, October 16, 2015, during a time of concurrent real-life events that mirror, bolster and accompany quite smoothly the stories, themes and plots of the film. “The Martian” opened the same week that National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials announced that they have discovered probable evidence of water on the surface of Mars—a real-life discovery that paralleled the Martian exploration themes and stories of “The Martian.” And “Bridge of Spies” has been released during the same month that continual Cold War communist foes China and Russia continue their deceitful, underhanded, deceptive, sneaky, illegal, corrupt and—let’s face it—psychotic and paranoid spy games, military games, intelligence games and political games that are simply extensions of the same games the country’s leaders have been coldly, criminally playing for decades and decades. And “Bridge” is also released during a time when many people still question many aspects of the United States’ military, defense, homeland security and intelligence operations.
Many intelligence officials fear that the Chinese government is behind recent computer system hacking incidents in the United States; China continues its long history of suppression of freedoms of speech, assembly, the press, journalism and scores of other basic human, civil and civic rights; China continues its patterns of deficient labor practices and environmental controls; Russia is found to have bombed a plane in an incident that killed hundreds of innocent people; Russia continues to illegally and criminally occupy parts of Ukraine; Russia continues to back the illegal and corrupt Syrian regime that is responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in the world today; Russia continues its horrendous illegal and criminal suppression of journalists, protesters, activists, and freedom-of-speech advocates; and Russia continues to associate itself with all of the wrong players on the world political stage. Of course, the United States itself in recent years has been found guilty of illegal torture practices; illegal waterboarding, or the horrible practice of simulating the drowning of prisoners; illegal detentions of people overseas; illegal spying on domestic computers of U.S. citizens; illegal CIA detention centers overseas; and all sorts of illegal gathering of intelligence that falls outside of normal, sane U.S. laws, rules and regulations.
These real-life political, military, intelligence, cultural and social criminal acts by the Chinese and Russian government operatives matter in relation to “Bridge of Spies” because these types of acts—along with the very same types of illegal, criminal and corrupt acts undertaken by these United States and by every other country with a working military, defense and intelligence infrastructure—and their basically ridiculousness, craziness and idiocy–provide the backbone for many of the major messages, themes and points of “Bridge of Spies:” That, when you strip all of the incidents, games, operations, missions, plans, ploys and undertakings down to their most basic, simple levels, it’s all just absolutely crazy. Yes, that’s it—it’s crazy. Idiotic, moronic, psychotic, crazy.
Not to mention, when spy operations are analyzed at their most basic level, stripped bare of too-deep, too-reaching intellectual analysis—anyone can clearly see that they are, in the end, mostly a complete waste of time, money, resources, human lives, machinery, equipment, management, administration, paper and efforts. Not because a strong defense, military and intelligence structure isn’t important—because it is—but because the manner in which countries operate in the spy world wastes so much time at the expense of having people actually sit down, talk, discuss, negotiate and work out problems like real human beings, all of the time and effort and resources and lives end up being one huge, complete waste of time, money and resources.
And to a large degree, that is what the compelling, suspenseful, intelligent, funny, entertaining and engaging “Bridge of Spies” is all about: That the political, governmental, military and intelligence leaders of some of the biggest, strongest, most powerful countries in the world at the height of the early Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s acted like complete fools, idiots, morons and mentally-unstable people–really–in their psychotic, paranoid, crazy attempts to simply get the upper hand in hundreds of moronic spy games in the political, governmental and power detritus, confusion and wastelands of land, territory, standing and power that the world had become after the end of World War II.
And that’s what makes “Bridge of Spies” so compelling, because the film is not just an entertaining early-Cold War spy thriller, but because the film—without preaching, without boring, long-winded speeches, without reaching, and without trying too hard—makes so many important points about the basic stupidity of governments across the world, you have to appreciate the subtle—but powerful–manner in which the producers, Spielberg, actors and writers all combine to make these important points. “Bridge” is one of those intelligent, talky, political, spy-oriented thrillers that makes its many important points and messages, but the filmmakers are careful that they don’t drive those points and messages down the viewers’ throats. “Bridge of Spies,” despite its many important messages, is also a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, fun, gripping and suspenseful spy thriller.
This is the mastery of masterful filmmakers operating at the height of their games, and this is also the continued superior quality filmmaking expertise of director Steven Spielberg. Time and again, Spielberg can approach the most epic stories, periods, tales and characters in this films and proceed to make scores of important messages and themes quite clear to the viewer, but he can also concurrently tell one hell of a story, present one hell of a cast, provide scores of beautiful filmic images, pictures and settings, and make one hell of an overall entertaining movie that everyone can enjoy time and again. And this discussion could just focus on his more serious-themed films, for they are all serious, important, intelligent, captivating, classic, epic and entertaining at the same time: “Empire of the Sun,” “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad,” “Munich,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Terminal,” “War Horse,” “Lincoln.”
And “Bridge of Spies” can easily be added to this list, as the film is as entertaining, fun and enjoyable as it is important in its delivery of the previously-discussed governmental, political, social, cultural, military, defense and intelligence themes and messages.
With excellent, assured direction from Spielberg from start to finish; superior work of a top-notch cast headed by Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance and Amy Ryan; incredibly, breathtakingly excellent period detail in terms of architecture, sets, buildings, cars, costumes, furniture, props, phones, military and spy equipment, offices and other period details; a suspenseful, well-written story of intrigue, deceit, deception, double crosses, mind games and political and spy games that is actually based on a very true story that captivated the world in the early 1960s; and editing, music and production design that somehow makes a very talky, action-less, dialogue-driven spy and politics story fast-moving, interesting, brisk and always-surprising, “Bridge of Spies” is excellent on every filmic level. The film is another instant masterpiece from Spielberg and his faithful cast and crew.
“Bridge” tells the true story of James Donovan (Tom Hanks, in yet another superb, likeable everyman role), a stereotypically mild-mannered, quiet, hard-working, family-oriented, humble and non-famous suburban, post-war lawyer, working on humble, non-famous insurance cases at a bustling law firm in bustling late ‘50s and early ‘60s Brooklyn and Manhattan. He is a humble World War vet, but he is also moving forward past the war years to, as everyone was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, move forward with his career, his family, his life in general. He has a beautiful wife (Amy Ryan, in one of her better roles in her career), two very cute kids, a beautiful house and a great job at the law firm, where a secretary dutifully gets his coffee just right when he comes to the office every morning. All is well in life in apparently sunny, bright early 1960s as America moves on from the difficulties of World War II and the Korean War.
Yet all was not that sunny and bright, of course. The U.S. and Russia were engaged in that ridiculous, paranoid, psychotic—and escalating—early Cold War, and spy games between the two countries—and other countries—were very real, very dangerous, very calculating—and, again, very insane. In “Bridge of Spies,” officials with American intelligence, the then-literally-out-of-control and unrestrained Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), ask Donovan’s law firm if Donovan—seen by the CIA as a likeable, all-American, man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit type of everyman lawyer–would represent recently-captured KGB spy Rudolph Abel—to simply give the world the public relations idea that the U.S. was actually living up its democratic ideals and giving Abel a fair defense in a fair court of law.
Hah! Donovan soon discovers—within his first days of reluctantly taking on Abel’s defense—that the U.S. government has absolutely zero intentions of giving Abel a fair trial, of living up its ideals, or of even giving Abel the fair defense that he deserves. Judges, CIA operatives, neighbors, people on the subway, everyday residents—and, most surprisingly, even colleagues at Donovan’s seemingly upstanding and respectable law firm—all simply want Donovan to go through simple public relations motions, not give Abel much of any real defense on any real legal level, and to simply put up a public persona of fairness while the government steers the case toward a swift sentence of death for Abel. The ghastly, horrific aspects of this part of the story—as with every aspect of the story—are that this actually happened, in real life.
Fortunately, the world is full of good people, and as it turns out, James Donovan was indeed a hero, a revolutionary, a man of principle, a man of intelligence, and a man clear-headed enough to see through all of the idiocy, insanity and craziness of the wayward government of the time, and a man strong enough and heroic to see that, indeed, even a KGB spy deserved a fair defense. Donovan actually started to defend Abel—much to the chagrin of just about everyone in the country. Perhaps the only people who were pleased were Abel’s handlers in the Soviet Union and the KGB. But Donovan knew that he was doing the right thing, and he actually presented a decent defense of Abel, arguing that his rights were violated, that the government’s actions in the case were tainted, illegal and corrupt, and that, again, everyone deserves their day in court.
Meanwhile, while Donovan was upsetting the entire country and government in the U.S., it’s notable that at the same time, the U.S., of course, was busy conducting its own spy games on the exact level that the KGB was conducting spy games in the U.S. The U.S. was operating a fleet of illicit, hush-hush spy planes—the notorious U2 spy planes—over the skies of the Soviet Union—of course, violating international air space, and violating scores of international and domestic rules, laws and regulations. Alas, one of those U2 spy planes was shot down over Russia, and its young, wide-eyed pilot, Francis Powers (a convincingly earnest, innocent yet proud Austin Stowell) is captured by the Soviets.
Donovan, in an incredibly intelligent, visionary and progressive view of the international political world at the time, argues against the death penalty for Abel—despite the wishes of just about everyone to sentence Abel to death, which was crazy in its own manner—and instead makes the argument that if the U.S. keeps Abel alive, the U.S. could possibly maneuver a classic spy trade—Abel for Powers. The incredible thing here is that, yes, this actually happened in real life.
The always-paranoid, sleazy and morally questionable CIA operatives—swayed by Donovan’s very real convictions, toughness, intelligence and moral heroism—eventually come around to Donovan’s views, agree with him, and agree to have Donovan act as a type of quasi-governmental, quasi-private sector negotiator, to arrange for the official spy swap of Abel for Powers. Yet Donovan wasn’t quite through with this first moral victory. At the same time that Powers is captured by the Soviets, a young student, Frederic Pryor—who, from all accounts, was not a spy at all—is captured by the East Germans around the time that the Berlin Wall was being built, in what was simply another crazy, psychotic spy game move. Everyone knew that Pryor was not a spy, yet this poor young, innocent student was imprisoned, tortured, deprived of sleep, interrogated and nearly forced to confess to crimes that he didn’t commit. Herewith, the craziness of the spy games comes through most clearly with the Pryor imprisonment and questioning. And it really happened.
Donovan insists on not only swapping Abel (an engaging, somehow likeable, quirky, wholly original and always-suspicious portrayal by a wonderful Mark Rylance) for Powers, but for Pryor, also. This alarms the sleazy snakes and slimeballs at the CIA and the Defense Department, who were perfectly willing to simply either let the innocent Pryor rot in an East German prison or—maybe—make a lame attempt to get him back later. The U.S. government—paranoid about the possibility of Powers spilling the U.S.’s own spying secrets—was focused intensely on just getting back Powers from the Soviets.
But Donovan stood his ground, and somehow, without getting killed, tortured or injured himself, travels overseas and somehow conducts a series of negotiations, discussions and talks with various suspicious Soviets, East Germans, KBG agents, operatives, government goons, criminals, plants, double agents, spies and even low-level government bureaucrats—all the while battling a cold, which adds some humor to the very real, very dangerous and very suspenseful proceedings—to negotiate a swap of Powers and Pryor for Abel. And, you guessed it, all of this actually happened, in real life.
These various talks and discussions, set amid that beautiful period detail of a 1960 Brooklyn, a disintegrating and confused and paranoid East Germany, the literal beginning of the Berlin Wall, a stark, cold and dark Soviet Union, and various back streets, dark rooms and Soviet-era prisons and offices, are the foundation of the film. The suspense occurs in watching Donovan—who was not a career spy or intelligence operative, but simply an intelligent, moral man and an excellent lawyer and negotiator—maneuver through these Cold War blockades and obstacles—literal and rhetorical—to simply free Powers and Pryor and to give the Soviets their spy Abel.
Throughout the negotiations, discussions and maneuvers, a cast of energetic actors bolsters Hanks in just-perfect supporting mannerisms that don’t take away the spotlight from Donovan’s quest, but supply just the right level of support, momentum and heft that help carry the story and the plot. Spielberg seems to have directed most of the cast to keep things simple, shady, sneaky and suspicious—but not so much in a broad, over-the-top or attention-getting manner. After all, this is a true-life spy story, and the people portrayed were generally based on real-life operatives, politicians, spies and bureaucrats. “Bridge” is a spy story—but it’s not on any level a Bond or Bourne spy story, and in this case, that’s a great thing.
Hanks, as always, expertly portrays a likeable, always-watchable, sympathetic, serious and funny, humble, dogged, determined and morally-focused everyman who allows the audience to sympathize with his character, like his character, believe in his character’s beliefs and mission, and follow his character through his difficult, gripping talks and discussions. There is an obvious chemistry between Hanks and Spielberg, as Spielberg is able to continually get Hanks to portray these extremely likeable everyman characters that still end up standing out as heroic, epic and memorable. This is the fourth film that Spielberg and Hanks have collaborated on; the previous films are “Saving Private Ryan” (1998); “Catch Me If You Can” (2002); and “The Terminal” (2004). Hanks and Spielberg also worked together on the television miniseries “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” May they continue to work together in the future, if the results are as excellent as these six film and television projects.
Rylance is superb as Abel, and Rylance somehow takes a character that was literally one of the most hated men in America in the early 1960s and makes him a real human being—actually likeable, understandable, sympathetic and real. Of course, it helps that the film explains that although everyone hated Abel for being a spy, the United States, of course, was just as busy deploying spies around the world—including throughout the Soviet Union and flying illegal spy planes over Soviet air space against all international laws.
The expertise of the production designer, art director, props department and set construction crew in creating a completely believable early 1960s world, in Brooklyn, East Germany and Russia, with incredible period detail in the sets, cars, costumes, props and, in particular, the sets showing the construction of the Berlin Wall, must be praised and applauded in “Bridge of Spies.” And the film actually filmed at the actual German bridge referred to in the title, Glienicke Bridge, which was the actual site of the spy swap that eventually, actually occurred—in real life in 1962. That extreme period detail is to be commended, also.
It’s also important to note, as it always occurs in Spielberg’s historical-based films, that, although it is a movie and some parts are dramatically enhanced for filmic purposes, attention was paid to assuring that a high degree of historical accuracy was obtained in the telling of this real-life story. Francis Powers, Jr.—Powers’ son—was a technical consultant on the film. And credit must go to screenwriters Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen for maintaining that adequate level of added dramatic and comedic flair with the same level of historical accuracy needed for the accurate telling of the story.
“Bridge of Spies” manages to immediately settle comfortably among the vast collection of upper-tier serious historical films directed and produced by Spielberg. The film is smart, compelling, enjoyable while all the while continually driving home those all-important themes and messages warning about the very dangerous follies and foolishness that men and women do in the questionable name of power, politics, defense and intelligence. That subtle balance of entertainment and seriousness is difficult for most filmmakers to achieve, but it’s continually amazing and impressive to watch Spielberg, his casts and his crews achieve this balance in film after film.
There are many messages delivered in “Bridge of Spies,” but there is one more worth pointing out: That the so-called Cold War—an idiotic term itself—is not really over, and that the Cold War truly continues to this day, in 2015. That is worth noting, because, alas, too many people are apt to inaccurately and incorrectly state, over and over again, that “the Cold War is over” or, somehow, the Cold War suddenly, abruptly ended in the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union broke up, the Wall came down and dubious, questionable, so-called reforms were put into place. Hah!
The very simple reality—as “Bridge of Spies” subtly instructs through its storytelling and messages—is that the Cold War never really ended. To this day, in 2015, as shown by the continual spy, military, defense, covert, classified and intelligence operations and missions of the United States, England, Israel, France, Germany, Russia, China, Japan and dozens of other countries on the planet, the Cold War continues and is very much alive and well, thank you. The United States government has a whopping, unbelievable seventeen spy agencies—seventeen–which operate at an estimated annual cost to taxpayers and the world of about $54 billion. Additionally, the U.S. still, of course, deploys spies and operatives around the world—spies and operatives who conduct the same types of missions that spies and operatives conducted throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
“The U.S. intelligence budget (excluding the Military Intelligence Program) in fiscal year 2013 was appropriated as $52.7 billion, and reduced by the amount sequestered to $49.0 billion,” according to a Wikipedia story on the United States’ intelligence community, directly quoting a report by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). “In fiscal year 2012 it peaked at $53.9 billion, according to a disclosure required under a recent law implementing recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.”
Of all the lessons, themes and messages regarding the spy games of the Cold War that “Bridge of Spies” delivers clearly and entertainingly, perhaps the most dangerous game of all is that the United States government in 2015 is still spending nearly $54 billion a year in taxpayer money on intelligence.
There’s still plenty of time for the world’s political leaders to stop playing these ridiculous spy games, to meet, to talk, to discuss, to act like human beings—and to take to heart and practice the ideals, morals, dedication, skills and hard work that James Donovan demonstrated through his career, in real life, and in Steven Spielberg’s excellent, captivating—and educational–“Bridge of Spies.”