Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)
Actually, that’s not fair, there’s a scene where the train crosses a bridge in New York or Brooklyn that is clearly meant to mirror a sequence when Hanks is leaving East Berlin by train.
I tend to prefer Spielberg’s Entertainments. I can see why he’d want to make something like The Color Purple or Schindler’s List as a means of getting films made that a less money-making talent would struggle, but I think there’s a political confusion to his serious efforts that he hasn’t lumbered his thrillers with. As Greg Tuck pointed out to me years ago there’s something disturbingly exceptional about his subject matter — Jews who survive the holocaust or slaves who get to go home. Gotta have that triumph of the human spirit.
But of course Spielberg can tell a story on a big canvas and has trained us to watch crowds — but he never knows where to end a movie. Imagine how devastating Minority Report would have been if it had ended with Tom Cruise in jail rather than conjuring up an estranged wife who suddenly forgives and springs him out of jail.
Bridge of Spies is the same. And it is posing as an Entertainment.
It should have ended with Tom Hanks on the bridge, unclear as to what will happen next, rather than bringing him back home to hearth and family and acclaim. There’s a line in the film about how it doesn’t matter what people think of you as long as you know that what you have done is right. But Hanks’s character is given redemption and applause, in a scene that echoes an earlier restless silence in a train in which he has been viewed as a traitor.
The film begins with a bridge — the Brooklyn bridge — and Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) posing as an artist in Brooklyn and receiving some nuclear secrets of one kind or another. He is arrested and put on trial — and in order to show that the American way of life is sacrosanct, he is given a trial of sorts, with insurance litigator James Donovan (Hanks) called upon by his boss (Alan Alda) to defend the indefensible. The trial is not as rigged as it might be, but in here we have a commentary of the importance of the constitution being followed even in times of war. I’m guessing we’re meant to have Guantanamo Bay in mind.
And Hanks is the most Mr Smith style actor in Hollywood today, with rare exceptions playing the decent, sincere, all-American man. If anyone can make us care for an insurance man as Capraesque rather than Kafka-esque it is Hanks. And Alda, in M*A*S*H*, played one of the most decent characters in sitcom history, so much so that he’s mostly acted against type since. He is very wary about Hanks’s attempt to appeal on Abel’s behalf. Donovan was smart enough to know that at some point an American spy would be captured and a swap could be made with Abel if he were still alive rather than executed. (Is Abel his real name? Is seems too NATO phonetic alphabet to be entirely genuine.)
And into this plunges U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers and obviously Donovan is sent to negotiate his release.
We sort of know how it’s going to end because, yanno, history, but the waters are muddied by an American PhD student who gets caught in the wrong side of the wall in Berlin. Meanwhile, Spielberg brings his fetish for widescreen historical reconstruction, in this case of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
And you can’t help noticing that this is a male world — the only women are wives, daughters, secretaries and cleaning ladies and everyone else is about bone structure. I suspect it’s a nearly all white world — the only African American I recall being on the back of a lorry in Brooklyn. But America is recuperated and that is hardly exceptional for Spielberg.
Hanks is solid throughout, but frankly the film is stolen by Rylance, whose portrayal of Abel is somewhere between his Thomas Cromwell and Private James Frazer from Dads Army. You kind of despair for the CIA, of course, as they think that Abel might come from Northern England. As in Scotland, Northern England. But he is wonderfully dry and curiously makes you feel sorry for a spy.
And so in the end, the Guantanamo parallels aren’t pushed to their limit. The American way of life is recuperated and following the Constitution is the thing to do (and I wonder if we needed a little historical context for the pledge of allegiance “under God” in the school sequence, which dated from 1954 and the McCarthy era). And rather than leave Hanks unclear as to the fate of his unlikely friend, we need to bring Hanks back to home and family and people thinking right of him.