Before you, a bridge rises out of the mist,
The near side your own side; the far, you resist.
On your side, so many are pleased to deride
The enemy wretches on their other side
And know in their hearts that their odious foe
Hates your side in equal amount, quid pro quo.
You fear them and jeer them and anyone near them
And anyone shy or unwilling to smear them,
And they do the same with no ending in sight
As hate begets hate and the threat of a fight.
You don’t really want one, and why would they too?
But they are untrustworthy, which they call you.
One day, though, you happen to meet one of “them,”
And though your first instinct’s perhaps to condemn
Like everyone else on the bridge’s two sides,
You doubt if it’s more than a bridge that divides.
Then, having suppressed your presumptive suspicion,
You look past the cover to read the edition.
Indeed, there’s a man behind labels and threats,
Not too unlike you, full of hopes and regrets.
You still disagree, thinking your side’s the best,
But men are more kindred than one might have guessed.
The bridge separates your two sides still suspect,
But now you await the day it may connect.
MPAA rating: PG-13
The first review I heard of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies was from a coworker who described it as “really boring but really good.” While the first part is arguable, I sincerely agree with the latter. Spielberg’s latest stab at significant historical drama may not be his most accessible, but it’s a solid addition to an already legendary filmography.
I’d wager that anyone other than a history buff probably has little more than name recognition when it comes to Gary Powers and the U-2 incident; I consider myself a semi-history buff, and I had no clue of the true story behind it, which began with the capture of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Oscar winner Mark Rylance). Since even criminals are given due process and no lawyer actually wants to defend an enemy spy, the powers that be task attorney James Donovan (ever-watchable Tom Hanks) with the duty of representing him in court. Donovan exhibits surprising commitment to the defense of his hated client, but it quickly becomes clear that Abel has already been convicted in the minds of both public and judge, making the prosecution nothing but a show trial.
I was reminded of how John Adams defended the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre and somehow succeeded in acquitting most of them, proving the impartiality of American justice. However, such open-mindedness did not extend to the Cold War; not to say that Abel was innocent, but Donovan treats him with a laudable “innocent-until-proven-guilty” mentality and earns much hate for himself in doing so. Dirty looks on the train are one thing, but when cowardly haters take potshots through Donovan’s windows, we’re reminded that people’s respect for the law extends only as far as their own prejudices. (To be fair, I’ve read that such an incident never actually happened.) Of particular note is a scene that jumps back and forth between Donovan’s work and the secret deployment of Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over enemy territory; the juxtaposition is subtle, but both men perform their duty for an unappreciative nation. The court battle could have made a good film by itself, but we see little of the legal proceedings as Donovan’s efforts are put into the larger context of international espionage, placing the attorney in the unfamiliar waters of prisoner exchanges and clandestine negotiations.
I can see how Bridge of Spies may not be a riveting experience for disinterested viewers, but I found the legal and political maneuvering consistently intriguing and not nearly as opaque as it could have been. Between the Coen brother’s intermittently witty script and Spielberg’s nuanced direction, the story flows naturally from one significant event to the next. I especially admired how certain scenes were foreshadowed or mirrored, whether for a sentimental payoff or for comparison, such as the contrast between the Soviets’ rough handling of Powers and the more civil treatment of Abel by the Americans. It may not be as exceptional a performance for Hanks compared with his more acclaimed roles, but I thought his principled character still deserved an Academy Award nomination. Rylance, who did win Best Supporting Actor, deserved praise for his drily sympathetic portrayal of Abel, but honestly I’m not sure that it would have warranted an Oscar in a more competitive year. In fact, I would have appreciated a little more interaction between Abel and Donovan, whose friendship is relegated mainly to the first half.
Despite these quibbles and the deliberate pacing, Bridge of Spies is quite close to a masterpiece. The historical basis and the focus on diplomacy and “spy stuff” through a personal lens distinguish their latest collaboration as one more success of which Hanks and Spielberg can be proud.
Best line: (Abel) “What’s the next move when you don’t know what the game is?”
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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