by NEVIL GIBSON
One of the most educative roles for movies is to bring history to life. Although Hollywood has treated some historical events egregiously, those usually deal with events beyond living memory.
Producer-director Steven Spielberg excels in this genre, which ranges from Lincoln (2012) back to Munich (2005),
Armistad (1997) and Schindler’s List (1993).
He hasn’t tackled the Cold War previously (other than an Indiana Jones adventure), so Bridge of Spies (20th Century
Fox-Dreamworks) has been keenly awaited by his admirers.
It links two incidents. One will be well remembered — the shooting down of Gary Powers in a U-2 “spy plane” over
the Soviet Union in 1960. The other less so — the arrest of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) on espionage charges in New York three years earlier.
In 1962, the two were exchanged on Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge. This happened largely through the efforts of one man, an insurance lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks).
A reluctant Donovan is persuaded to act as Abel’s defence counsel, a role that would bring him public opprobrium, because Soviet spies were then seen as only fit for hanging.
But Donovan places an ace before the trial court to save Abel’s life — forget capital punishment and hold him as a living hostage.
The ploy pays off when Powers, who was sentenced to 10 years’ in a Soviet jail, becomes a potential spy exchange.
How this is achieved produces none of the fireworks you get in a fictional spy thriller. Instead, like Lincoln, it is all about what goes on behind the scenes in political argy-bargy.
This is complicated by a further element — tension between the Russians, as a one-time occupying power of Berlin, and the East German communists.
Technically, the Russians have no rights in Berlin, but they have Gary Powers. The East Germans up the ante when they arrest an American student, and Donovan aims to get him out, too.
Spielberg plays the story straight. This is a spy yarn with few cynical characters, only a dash of deception and no double agents.
But that doesn’t make them boring. Far from it.
Abel, for example, is sympathetically presented as an honourable man just doing a job he believes in (the Russians never admitted he was one of their agents).
The casting of Rylance, best known for his role as Cromwell in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall, provides the perfect foil to to the under-stated Hanks, who doesn’t see his role as heroic, either. The script also stands out.
Originally submitted to Spielberg by British writer Matt Charman, it has been tweaked by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who are among the best in Hollywood with their dry wit and unpredictable plot twists.
Abel’s characterisation resembles the hapless hero of A Serious Man.
The dialogue presents plenty of exposition, including the moral conflict of whether the Cold War was an unequal contest, with one side having no rules and the other bound by constitutional law that values the individual.
Rating: Mature audiences (violence and offensive language); 141 minutes.