Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Friday, 6 November 2015

Bridge of Spies


Image courtesy eonline.com
















I've never reviewed a movie on this humble blog, gentle reader.

This post will remedy that omission.

The movie (or "film" as people of my generation call it) is Bridge of Spies, a 2015 American Historical drama-thriller directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Matt Charman from Ethan and Joel Coen's screenplay.

The film stars Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan and Alan Alda. 

Here, straight from the Wiki, is the plot. Obviously, don't read on if you're put off by spoilers.

In 1957 Brooklyn, New York, Rudolf Abel retrieves a secret message from a park bench and reads it just before FBI agents burst into his rented room. He prevents discovery of the message, but other evidence in the room leads to his arrest and prosecution as a Soviet spy. James B Donovan, a lawyer who specializes in insurance settlements, is asked by his partners to take on Abel's defense. The United States believe that Abel is a KGB spy, but want him to have a fair trial to reduce the Soviet Union's chance to use it for propaganda. Donovan meets with Abel in prison, where the Russian agrees to accept his help. Abel refuses to cooperate with the US government on any revelations of the intelligence world.

Although Donovan takes his work seriously, no one—including the prosecuting attorneys, the judge, his firm, or his family—expects him to mount a strong defense of Abel. His efforts to seek acquittal are met with shock and anger by the American public; he is deluged with hate mail and his life is threatened, but he continues to fight.

Abel is found guilty of all charges, but Donovan convinces the judge to sentence him to 30 years imprisonment, rather than death, on the grounds that Abel may one day be valuable as a bargaining chip with the USSR. Donovan subsequently appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court that the evidence presented by the prosecution is tainted by an invalid search warrant, but loses 5–4.

In the meantime, Francis Gary Powers goes on a U-2 spy plane sortie over the Soviet Union, where he is shot down and captured.  He is convicted and subjected to interrogation. Frederic Pryor, an American economics graduate student, visits his German girlfriend in East Berlin just as the Berlin Wall is being built. He tries to bring her back into West Berlin, but is stopped by Stasi agents and arrested as a spy.

The USSR sends a backchannel message to Donovan, via a false letter to Abel from his "family," proposing a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers. Donovan has heard of Pryor's capture and insists on a 2-for-1 exchange instead. Though the CIA is interested only in Powers' return, it allows Donovan to negotiate for Pryor as well, on condition that the Abel-for-Powers deal is not jeopardized.

The East German government, which is holding Pryor, suddenly pulls out, insulted that Donovan did not inform them that the USSR was a party to the negotiation. The CIA wants to leave Pryor behind and finish the exchange. Donovan threatens East Germany by saying unless Pryor is returned, the entire deal will be scrapped and Abel interrogated, and the USSR will blame East Germany for any damage. East Germany capitulates, and the exchange is conducted, freeing the three men. Donovan gains credit for his achievement.

So it's a great tight narrative, and is based solidly in fact.

As a spectacle, the movie is bereft of special effects (with the possible exception of the depiction of the shooting down of Powers' U2), but it's all the better for that.

The cinematography is first class, and captures the atmospherics of the time with vivid accuracy. There is not a great deal of action, as such, but the dialogue is brilliantly sharp.

The actual historical events have plenty of relevance today. Put the situation of the inmates of Guantanamo Bay beside that of Rudolf Abel, and there is a startling connect. Donovan points out at one stage, when he is vilified for defending Abel, that the right to a fair trial is one of the values that separates the USA from the totalitarian USSR.

Exactly the same principle was shoved aside when Bush and the Neocons sent accused terrorists to Guantanamo Bay.

I was riveted by the narrative and the characterisation of Donovan as a "standing man"*.

The critics apparently liked it as well. Make sure you take the time to see it.

Bridge of Spies is showing right now all over the country.

* You'll have to watch the movie to get this reference.

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