BRIDGE OF SPIES directed by Steven Spielberg (USA; 2015)
As a self-confessed movie nerd I can’t get enough of the ironic post-modernism to be found in directors like David Lynch, Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch. I identify strongly with the cynical and often surreal gaze they direct towards the modern world.
In my book, The Coen Brothers fit squarely into this category so it comes as something of shock to find Ethan and Joel’s names (alongside British playwright Matt Charman) on the screenwriting credits for Spielberg’s very conventional drama. Apparently, their remit was to add some zip to a story which, with shades of Fargo, is “inspired by real events”.
Lawyer James B. Donovan played by Tom Hanks is the decent, upstanding all American family man appointed to defend the devious Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in what is initially conceived as little more than a show trial.
I suspect it is the Coens who came up with the best line in the movie when, in response to Donovan’s comment that Abel never seems to worry, the spy asks “Would it help?” This is funny the first time around, but when he poses the same question on two further occasions, it loses its novelty value. Otherwise, the script is tight and workmanlike although has none of the wisecracks or lively verbal exchanges you come to expect in Coen Brothers movies.
Abel’s guilt is taken as a given and it also assumed that he will be sentenced to death. Such a verdict is demanded by the masses of affronted US citizens who behave like a lynch mob. The general public and popular media are indignant when Donovan engineers it so that the spy is condemned to life imprisonment rather than death. The lawyer’s reasoning is proved rock solid when it transpires that Abel can be used as a bargaining tool to secure the release of US, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) who is being held prisoner in East Berlin.
The events take place in 1957 during the cold war, a period in which Russia and all other communists were perceived as a direct threat to America’s way of life. This real and present danger is something Allen Ginsberg satirized in his poem Howl: “And them Russians. The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from out of our garages”.
One of the best scenes is where Donovan makes a speech explaining why America needs to set an example to the world (“them Russians”) by giving this spy a fair trial. In other words the US are above the crude tactics of torture and deception routinely practiced by the unscrupulous commies.
Scenes like this reveal the movie as a not so subtle propaganda film since it implies that what makes America great is that she always follows legal protocols and never resorts to dirty tactics. It takes a huge supension of disbelief, or blinkered patriotism, to buy into this aspect of the story!
Steven Spielberg is a master storyteller and effortlessly ensures that the action is brisk enough so that audiences are engaged in (i.e, distracted by) the twists and turns of the unfolding drama. The fact that America is right and everyone else is wrong is taken for granted to the point that it is never even raised as an issue for debate.
With its focus on character studies, notably Donavan and Abel – this movie has a quaintly old fashioned quality. Hanks plays the kind of squeaky clean hero that Jimmy Stewart made his own back in the day and, best of all, we get to see the brilliant acting of Mark Rylance. His Oscar winning performance shows that he could have been a A-list movie star on a par with Daniel Day-Lewis had he not directed his talents into the theatre.
Bridge of Spies is an enjoyable thriller which ends with everyone living happily ever after. It seems to belong to another, simpler age when everyone believed what they were told and could easily identify the heroes from the villians.
In contrast to the more cynical dramas that make up the bulk of the today’s entertainment industry, it’s a movie that could be classified as a prime example of Pre-Modernism.