Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Bridge Of Spies

"A battle is being fought by two competing views of the world," intones a character in Steven Spielberg's Cold War drama Bridge Of Spies, and the subtext hangs in the air like a dense cloud of obviousness. It'd be easy to accuse the line of being trite - yes, that battle is always being fought, we get it - if it wasn't hammered home by two recent real-world events: the terrorist attacks in Paris, and Turkey's violent removal of a Russian jet from what may or may not have been its airspace (an incident chillingly mirrored half way through Spielberg's film). The timing is, of course, tragically coincidental, but it's not hard to see that Bridge Of Spies' gloomy geopolitical outlook would indeed be depressingly relevant whenever it was released. To dismiss that dialogue as hackneyed cliché would be a heartless shrug at everything Spielberg - and, by extension, his protagonist - believes in and wants you to have a good old think about on the way home and, preferably, for some time afterwards.

While that might sound like you're in for 141 minutes of being guilt-tripped for not giving sufficient shits about international conflict, Bridge Of Spies isn't really interested in patronising you. Quite the opposite, in fact: its densely-worded script and stubborn refusal to throw in frequent action-packed, or even tension-laced, set-pieces (barring the aforementioned plane-downing) demands your full attention and intelligence from start to finish. Nip out for a wazz in the middle of this and you'll return to find borders and allegiances have shifted, at least three secrets will have been revealed (or hidden) and Tom Hanks' Tomhanksness will have multiplied tenfold.
Tom, cardy

As the insurance lawyer bafflingly assigned to the defence case of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), Hanks' James Donovan opts not to take the easy way out by losing the case and sending Abel to his death, instead saving his life AS INSURANCE (do you see?) in case any US military personnel should find themselves behind enemy lines and a bargaining chip is required. The storytelling rug-pulling that follows is incessant and exponentially ambitious: just when you think the story's about Abel, the focus shifts to Donovan and his literally fist-clenching stoicism against a tide of hate from his own countrymen (fuelled by a biliously jingoistic press; again with the modern-day parallels). Before you know it it's about tensions in a newly-divided Berlin, and by its climax it's reaching for nothing less than world peace and understanding, albeit with the soft edges of Spielberg's trademark optimism sharpened slightly to offer an inevitable edge of cynicism.

Hanks, frequently and comfortably typecast as the all-round Good American, seems on a mission to up the stakes here to Apex Of Humanity. Donovan couldn't really give a toss whether or not Abel is guilty; he sees him as a human being first, an honourable soldier second and a treacherous spy third, if at all. His fight to save Abel's life is motivated in part by clinical forward thinking but mostly by a streak of compassion wider than the Iron Curtain, and when the time comes to employ Abel as leverage for the life of a captured American soldier, Donovan takes his crusade a step further than anyone expects - or, for political reasons, really wants - him to.
This is what happens when you go for an evening stroll with Janusz Kaminski

It's a complex tale, deftly delivered by fully qualified masters of the craft (the revisions done to Matt Charman's script by the Coen brothers eschew their trademark oddballery in favour of clean storytelling lines), and although it very obviously belongs to Spielberg's late, grown-up period, he's not afraid to have fun with his omnipresent god lights, lens flare or hammering rainstorms. There's a pleasing smattering of dark humour too, not least in Rylance's amusingly laconic, Scottish-accented Russkie. What you take away from it is up to you, but a sequence involving the erecting of the Berlin Wall echoes the appearance of the World Trade Centre in Munich, and this shit isn't just thrown together. History, as told by Steven Spielberg, rarely stays in the past, and right now it sure as hell isn't confined to the screen.

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