Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, February 14, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies” began with a tantalizing combination for cinema nerds. Steven Spielberg, one of the most popular filmmakers of all time, would be directing a screenplay co-written by the Coen brothers, the critically and cultishly beloved eccentric duo. The film would star Tom Hanks, a beloved pop culture figure in his own right. Adapting the true life story of James B. Donovon, “Bridge of Spies” was guaranteed to attract Academy attention. Fans of the Coen brothers might be disappointed to read that “Bridge of Spies” includes few of the filmmakers’ quirks. Instead, the movie has Spielberg’s sensibilities through-and-through. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as “Bridge of Spies” is a pretty good Spielberg movie.

In 1957, Rudolph Abel is arrested by the FBI, suspected of being a spy for the Soviet Union. As a show of good faith, Abel is granted a fair trial. James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer, is selected to defend Abel. Though Abel is a spy, Donovan treats him fairly, talking the judge back from pursuing the death penalty. Donovan foresees Abel as an important tool, should an American spy be captured by the Soviets. Donovan’s prediction comes true when Francis Gray Powers, a pilot of a spy plane, is shot down over Russia. Around the same time, an American student in East Berlin is arrested at the still under-construction Berlin wall. Donovan is recruited by his government again, negotiating a trade between the two countries on the edge of war.

Tom Hanks is perfectly cast in “Bridge of Spies.” He plays James Donovan as an unusually principled man. He reluctantly accepts the job of defending Abel, knowing it will make him very unpopular. Despite his client being an enemy of the state, Donovan insists he receive an unbiased trial. He doesn’t believe the man deserves to die, as Donovan believes in the value of human life. As his situation becomes more intense, scrutinized in his own country and traveling overseas in a hostile land, Donovan’s incredible ethics never waver. He’s an incredibly fair man. To bring such a sincere figure to life, an actor like Tom Hanks almost had to be cast. Yet “Bridge of Spies” is not a hagiography. Hanks plays Donovan as a tired, exhausted man, eager to return home. Without loosing sight of his humanity, “Bridge of Spies” portrays James Donovan as an incredibly humanistic man during a difficult time.

“Bridge of Spies” is an especially low-key espionage film. There are no gun fights or explosions. In the opening scene, Abel retrieves a quarter from under a park bench, a secret message contained within. On the American side, Francis Gray Powers is simply flying his airplane over the Soviet Union when he’s shot down. When Donovan is in the USSR, his mission is accomplished by meeting with different people and having conversations. The film frequently generates a quiet tension. During the first sequence, government agents pursue Abel through the streets, both men doing their best not to draw attention to themselves. Even the scene where Powers’ plane is shot down, the most action heavy sequence in the film, is focused more on Powers’ fate than the thrill of watching his plane explode. As with its protagonist, “Bridge of Spies’ never looses sight of the men’s humanity. Mark Rylance is incredible as Abel, generating a quiet pathos as a man who doesn’t say much but is, in his own way, equally principled. Austin Stowell portrays Powers as an ordinary kid, stumbling into extraordinary circumstances.

Aside from Tom Hanks’ powerful lead performance, what I most liked about “Bridge of Spies” is how well it captures the paranoia and conflict of the time. In school, Donovan’s kids watch duck and cover videos. This inspires the youngest boy to fill the bathtub with water, preparing for a bomb strike on New York City. After Abel receives imprisonment over the death penalty, a man stands up in the courtroom, angrily asking why this man is receiving mercy. In one of the film’s most bracing sequences, a shooter fires on Donovan’s home, on his family, in the middle of the night. The situation isn’t much better overseas. As Berlin is being divided by the building of the wall, a feeling of fear hangs over the populace. Not long after reaching the city, a group of young thugs steal Donovan’s coat. A local official, with Hanks as his passenger, drives his car down the road dangerously fast, hoping to attract attention from the local cops. Late at night, attempted escapees are fired upon as they attempt to cross the wall. Donovan’s insistence that reason and empathy succeed seems to speak to the Cold War setting as a whole. These countries most find a peaceful middle ground if they hope to avoid mutual nuclear destruction.

Naturally, “Bridge of Spies” is beautifully shot and features a phenomenal score from Thomas Newman. Whether or not the film will be remembered as an important film in Spielberg’s career is difficult to tell. Even when the director is making Important Movies such as these, he’s capable of finding the common humanity within. “Bridge of Spies” isn’t necessarily a great film, as its too long and feels like its repeating itself at times, but it’s still a very good one. [7/10]

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