Wednesday, 20 January 2016

"We have to have the conversations our governments can't."

Insurance lawyer James Donovan, who unexpectedly became a big hat in the Cold War, could best be described as classic Tom Hanks. The stalwart American – smart, decent, morally courageous, a brilliant man who plays the fool, with a smile for every kind of weather. When stirred, and this absorbing account of his exploits does plenty of stirring, that smile turns to steel. A straight shooter stalking a land of riddles. Sensibly, then, Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) has cast Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks) to play him.

The pleasingly unpredictable latter career Spielberg has chosen to follow his magnificent rumination on the greatness of Lincoln (2012) with another category resistant historical reenactment. Bridge Of Spies – a reference to the Glienicke Bridge, where spy trade-offs are made in shivering pre-dawn Berlin – dances between courtroom drama and espionage thriller. There is plenty of speechifying too, stirring gusts of high minded virtue: "American justice will be on trial!" From Minority Report (2002) to Lincoln, Bridge Of Spies is another of Spielberg's enquiries into the nature of American goodness as ordained by the Constitution.

Donovan's particular corridor of history is not a natural fit for a movie. A HBO mini-series might have arguably served its complexities better, but Spielberg, who clearly has celluloid his bones, keeps the mood deliberately old fashioned. The look is polished and dreamlike, as if it came from the 1950s – sunlight glinting off New York cabs in stark contrast to the statutory layer of dirty snow that smears Berlin. Spielberg skilfully captures the paranoid mood of the era and the barbed political labyrinth Donovan has to negotiate in trying to reconcile all the mutually suspicious interests involved.

The first half depicts Donovan's attempts to bring "the rule of law" to his futile defence of Abel. In one of numerous ironies, it is as much a show trial as anything the Soviets can throw. Donovan's insistence on American values has him attacked as unpatriotic, but he is canny enough to foresee that Abel could be insurance against America's own spying follies. Just as Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper embodied 1950s integrity, Hanks' star persona here is the engine that drives the film forward.

As the wiry, subdued Abel, Mark Rylance (Anonymous) works the opposite trick. He is a chameleon, summoning sympathy for this strange, unprepossessing figure, as much a man of principal as his lawyer. Despite having witnessed his chicanery in a terrifically sustained arrest sequence, we root for Donovan to clear him. "You don't seem worried," Donovan remarks as the prosecution demands the Abel's death. "Would it help?" comes the deadpan response.

The second half of Donovan's journey is perhaps less fluent, but no less interesting. Bridged by Gary Powers' (Austin Stowell) U-2 spy plane going down over Russia, the film leaps to 1962. Donovan 'unofficially' crisscrosses the newly raised Berlin Wall, tensely negotiating the exchange of Powers for Abel with an influx of interfering agents and aggravated apparatchiks. Matching the grim, divided city, the tone becomes bleak and darkly comic.

Which brings us nicely to the Coen brothers. Notably, Spielberg enrolled them to bring their sardonic touch to Matt Charman's (Suite Française) script. Without spoiling the mood, you can detect their unique quirks everywhere, probing the realpolitik for absurdity, finding comedy in the madness of nuclear brinkmanship, and writing great scenes of Donovan tormenting CIA wonk and KGB clown alike.

It is often easy to take Spielberg's considerable talents for granted. The strange, yet riveting mix of Bridge Of Spies is another reminder that we shouldn't.

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