Movies penned by the Coen brothers are known for their archetypal display of quirkiness or, if you will, a sense of pretentiousness that requires for the audience to take multiple viewings in order to make sense of the story. However, in a recent movie where the brothers co-opted to write the screenplay, there is very little that gives itself out in terms of their unique cinematic style that dominated the contents of their otherwise critically acclaimed modern classics like The Big Lebowski, Fargo, A Serious Man, Burn After Reading and the likes.
The movie in question is Bridge of Spies, a gritty, high-paced Cold War spy thriller that tells the story of a prisoner exchange that took place in East Berlin at the peak of political tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. Somehow, many Indians have missed out on this recent classic piece of cinema dating to 2015, which I believe anyone with a taste for offbeat, yet not non-mainstream, cinema can’t afford to skip.
The movie brings out the dimension of humanism trumping other identities in a remarkable manner, leaving the audience emotionally touched, and in some sense, even awestruck, though its bias towards the democratic values present in the United States and not its Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, comes out strongly to those discerning enough.
To begin with, the movie is an unadulterated homage to the noble efforts of Irish-American New York insurance lawyer James B Donovan (slickly portrayed by the ever-affable Tom Hanks) in seeking to fight for the life of a Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who has been apprehended by the American authorities on the charges of espionage. This, Bridge of Spies does by playing up the feel-good aspects of the American dream where lawyers fight tirelessly for the rights of all, criminal or otherwise.
In other words, by being a raconteur of the validation of the American constitution, the movie, during its first half, is a self-fulfilling exercise in self-vindication. Its success depends on overlooking the very elements in American foreign policy that led to the frost developing in the relations between the West and the Communist bloc.
The timing of the release of the movie is possibly yet another indication of that self-validation. The thriller has come out at a time when a renewal of Cold War tensions is a constant concern, with the tragic situation unfolding in the Middle East and to a lesser extent, East Europe. The movie, it is perhaps hoped, will serve to act as a parable of America’s overreaching greatness and regard for the rule of law, at a time when the country’s own citizens question Uncle Sam’s increased surveillance and the violation of their privacy.
That being said, there’s no denying the artistic brilliance of Steven Spielberg who manages to craft a genuine second half of the film that sears the viewer’s mind with witty one-liners and deliberate, edge-of-the-seat moments in typical big, brash Hollywood style reminiscent of Jurassic Park, Munich or even Minority Report.
Speaking of the first half of Bridge of Spies, we can’t help but be overawed by Donovan’s sense of conviction in what is morally right. At the risk of grave danger to his own person and his family from jingoistic American nationalists, Donovan rises to the occasion to defend Abel, while the American public largely is too busy baying for his blood. Donovan resolutely mounts a very determined defence for Abel, arguing that the manner of collecting evidence was fraught with irregularity, and in a private conversation with the judge, falling back on the politically expedient argument that the death penalty for Abel might not be a very strategic move, as he might come in handy as a bargaining chip if the US ever needs to negotiate with the Soviets, other than even the moral contention of Abel working for his country, the way his American counterparts do.
And indeed, as luck would have it, the situation presents itself, when the U2 CIA pilot Gary Powers is captured by Soviets on a routine recce mission. The ability to view sensitive issues like these impartially, putting oneself in the shoes of “the other” from a purely human standpoint, wherein one can be friends with a foreign ‘enemy’ of your nation, emerges with a unique blend of sentimentality and rationalism, while not underscoring the premise that the ability to do so can also be and often is in the interests even of those sharing your national identity, who fail to realise that, being swept away by negative, “tribalistic” emotions of antipathy. This is indeed something that is also particularly of immense relevance to us, South Asians, but I’m not suggesting ultra-pacifism or appeasement for India in all contexts.
The second half of the film starts treading on an unfamiliar territory unbeknownst to both Spielberg and the Coen brothers’ artistic sensibilities. The sound design becomes glaringly minimal and the audience is transported to a grim, Gothic-like setting where Donovan, while taking a walk in downtown Berlin, is faced with a sombre realisation that the spy game is exceedingly dangerous. And to dilute that seriousness, there are brief interludes of dry comedy whenever Abel answers to Donovan’s prodding by saying “Would it help?” (On another note, the actor portraying Abel is noted British thespian Mark Rylance who is a three-time Tony award winner. The only reason why I have highlighted this is that Rylance is a typical veteran actor who has come out of “nowhere” much like Gary Oldman or Geoffrey Rush and hence, in my humble opinion, needs much more of our support.)
To speak of the character Abel and the man behind it, the direction and the screenplay lends a deliberate sense of oddball playfulness in that the character is presented in the beginning as a rather bland, stoic painter and then eventually, we get to see a witty side of his, which is such a pleasure to watch as a moviegoer.
Coming back to analysing the second half, by now, the plot has already thickened where Donovan has made steady progress in pursuing in Germany a one-of-a-kind two-for-one deal for Gary Powers and also American student Frederic Pryor researching on Communism (arrested on suspicion of espionage for crossing over to East Germany) in exchange for Abel. This Donovan does, against the explicit advice of the CIA operatives stationed with him to not relentlessly pursue Pryor’s case but only strike the bargain for Powers. A viewer not in tune with that period would indeed almost inevitably start worrying here whether this gamble would pay off, and if not, would it cost the life of Donovan, who is already our favourite lion-hearted character.
But Donovan deftly works out every new move as his game of intrigue works its charm on every other bureaucrat he comes across. Maddeningly, Donovan is able to do all of this with much grace and the self-assurance of a surgeon, though the jury is indeed still out whether the real-life Donovan was able to match his reel-life counterpart’s sense of style and relative calm in the face of all odds.
The cinematography in the movie is spot-on, thanks to Polish-born Janus Kaminski (of Schindler’s List fame) who lends his aesthetics to the film, notable in the Berlin sequences. In an interview to the Los Angeles Times, he is quoted to have said that the aspects of greyness and bleakness in the second half are largely shaped by Soviet-era Poland, where he spent his growing-up years. This lies in sharp contrast to the yellowish tinge with which the frames are cast for New York, to evoke warm feelings about the supposedly righteous American socio-political framework, and so, the colours reflect that sense of self-entitlement to some degree. Needless to say, Kaminski has done a great job in his department.
However, it would be notable to mention here, yet again, how the writers engage in an act of self-righteous indulgence where they try to present a haunting image of the Soviet-era as epitomizing despotism and savagery by showing Donovan witnessing East German citizens being gunned down while trying to scale the Berlin wall and echoing that later on by small children climbing over fences and obstacles back home in New York. This, in my opinion, has been an excessive display of artistic liberty, and isn’t something I am in full agreement with, also because historically, the real Donovan certainly didn’t see many Berlin Wall escapees being shot, the shooting most similar to the one depicted being the killing of Peter Fechter that happened the summer after the Powers-Abel exchange on the Glienecke Bridge.
There are other liberties taken with history too, like Pryor’s arrest having actually not been the way it was portrayed in the film and even his subsequent release wasn’t exactly as depicted, other than the fact that some of the physical hardships and damage to property at the hands of American miscreants endured by Donovan as a lawyer in New York for taking up Abel’s case, as shown in the movie, are fictitious (though the social heckling was apparently real), thus even exaggerating American jingoism to glorify the protagonist.
However, all being said, the finale where there is a final showdown at the bridge is a jaw-dropping sequence, where the lack of suspense is more than compensated for by the poignant interaction between Donovan and Abel, in which Abel displays his humane self by insisting on being swapped not only in exchange with Powers but the student Pryor as well. By this time, the audience has grown much closer to the character Abel, wishing for his safe return than being more concerned with the safety of Powers, who is of more vital national importance for the Americans, thus also promoting a narrative of American generosity. This only underlines that the direction and the screenplay have been skilful and successful in fulfilling their purpose.
(Courtesy for the Image: http://www.ew.com/article/2015/07/08/bridge-of-spies-tom-hanks-cold-war-trailer)