Friday, October 16, 2015

"Bridge of Spies": Spielberg is back with a compelling Cold War drama (and the Coen Brothers stepped up to the writing)


Bridge of Spies” brings back Steven Spielberg’s brand of historical filmmaking. This time, the accomplishment is to recreate the world of the Cold War, especially surrounding the erection of the Berlin Wall and the U-2 spy incident.
  
The story, with screenplay written largely by the Coen Brothers, tells the story of how an “insurance lawyer” James B. Donovan “stepped up” as an average person to negotiate extraordinary things for his country, even when meeting considerable immediate social disapproval and putting his family (in Brooklyn) at risk.  First, he is approached to defend a spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).  Not many peers, even the judge, accept his deference to Abel’s due process rights under the Constitution. He convinces the court to spare Abel’s life because he could be needed as a bargaining chip later with the Soviets.  His insurance background has taught him to think of that. Later, the CIA will approach him to help negotiate the exchange of Abel for downed U-2 pilot Gary Powers, ironically ratifying Donovan's argument to spare Abel's life.  

The film depicts the Red paranoia of the times, with the kids taking school "Duck and Cover" drills seriously.
  
The movie tells a parallel story of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) who doesn’t take the cyanide pill when shot down (in the spring of 1960) and gets captured.  The plane flew at the astounding altitude of 70000 feet. That sets up the swap that Donovan had anticipated.

But a big complication comes from the accidental imprisonment of economics graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers).  When moving on foot in East Berlin (with the necessary papers), Donovan negotiates the 2 for 1 swap by making the Russians and East Germans play political chicken against one another. 

At the final swap at the end (at two locations) there is considerable suspense.  The movie shows the grimy conditions in East Berlin.

The prisoner swap occurred in February 1962, eight months before the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was shortly after my own William and Mary expulsion, not a good time in my own life. 

At times, the dialogue does show how Communist "moral" ideology captured bureaucratic thinking. The scene where Hanks negotiates the final deal with a "cute" teenage looking male aide (Max Mauff) of the East German DA is quite funny.

At one point, the sound track makes effective use of the wailing theme from the slow movement of the Shostakovich Piano Concerto #2, as if to oppose the Soviet leash on composers at the time. 


Here’s the official site from Dreamworls SKG  along with Disney (Touchstone) and 20th Century Fox, as well as Participant Media.
  
I saw the film at AMC Tysons before an ample late Friday afternoon audience, two-thirds sold out.  The film was projected with the wrong lens for the first ten minutes.

Picture: Redhook, Brooklyn, my visit, Feb. 2013 (in mild weather for time of year). 

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