Sunday 19 August 2018

From the archive: "Bridge of Spies"

Since 2008’s tired-seeming Indiana Jones return and the abortive attempt to launch another franchise with 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg has pursued a course less businessman-like than statesmanlike. This legacy phase – consolidating earlier historical inquiries ventured by Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich – wobbled a little with 2011’s sappy War Horse; it gained rhetorical heft over the course of 2012’s very fine Lincoln; with Bridge of Spies, it provides us with one of 2015’s standout American films.

If Lincoln more or less subscribed to the Great Man theory of history, the new film – written by the British playwright Matt Charman, with input from the Coen brothers – finds its focus among those joshingly defined on screen as “we little men, who do our jobs”. Its hero is James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), the commuter-belt insurance lawyer obliged to make the most of a losing hand after being assigned to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy arrested in New York in 1957.

Making this particular case could have been pious, dry, or both; again, there’s a fair bit of that Lincoln business of white men sitting in brown rooms talking. (“Everyone deserves a defence,” is Donovan’s rationale, echoing that Schindlerian refrain about he who saves one life saving the world entire.) Yet right from its opening sequence, in which a silent phone call redirects Abel from painting to a park bench on assignment, Bridge of Spies expresses a total, immersive fascination with the world of spycraft.

Diplomacy becomes the substance of great acting. Initially, I hadn’t the foggiest why Rylance, playing a Newcastle-born Soviet agent, should be speaking in a Celtic brogue, but it fits the conception of Abel as an oddbod: a man of no particular place, resisting the rhythms of all those around him – and Spielberg sees how this uningratiating figure (a brother, perhaps, to Ulrich Mühe’s surveillance sadsack in The Lives of Others) is as important to this story as anybody.

Not least as Rylance’s idiosyncrasies provide an appreciable contrast with his typically foursquare co-star – although, as 2013’s Captain Phillips witnessed, Hanks’s projection of decency has only deepened with age and an understanding of the world’s growing indifference to such gentilities. Having Donovan catch the sniffles from his client is both an inspired, simple yet humanising touch – and a sly (Coen-authored?) joke on how the Cold War left everyone a little worse for wear.

Some of Bridge of Spies is pure Spielberg, and that purity is in itself touching. The primacy of home again manifests itself in the lawyer’s petitioning of a judge one Sunday lunchtime, in an attack on the Donovan household, and a punchline that chimes with Lincoln’s late bedroom gag. What’s new is the interest in foreign policy, and how these two fronts are linked – for Abel’s story, it transpires, is also that of Francis Gary Powers, the American surveillance pilot shot down over Soviet territory in a tremendous action setpiece.

Running throughout Charman’s script is the ever-pertinent idea that taking action over there can only have some impact back here. The second half, dispatching Donovan to Berlin to oversee a prisoner swap, finds subtly resonant parallels between US, Soviet and German activity: another phone call, big breakfasts, boyish assistants. The period recreation expands Spielberg’s imagination: one masterful sequence, describing the perimeters of the under-construction Wall, is the work of a filmmaker forever seeking new visual means of expressing long-cherished freedoms.

These extend to a particular freedom of speech, allowing the spy-movie doubletalk to be as ironic as it is rousing. When Donovan tells his wife “I’m doing this for us”, Spielberg clearly intends it to mean all of us. Yet even Abel’s sardonic catchphrase (“Would it help?”) functions on two levels. A throwback to Sturges and Capra, working at a time when filmmakers hoped gags might defuse or distract from conflict, it’s also a badge of honour, worn by a little guy who, very much in his director’s image, can’t resist putting himself in some higher, noble, truly stirring cause.

(MovieMail, November 2015)

Bridge of Spies screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

No comments:

Post a Comment