Monday, October 19, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg is an expert at pulling heartstrings. A.I., Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun and Lincoln were some of his great tearjerkers. But what elevates his films above mere melodrama is the profundity of the moral premises that infuse the narratives. In the case of Spielberg’s latest outing, Bridge of Spies, a cold war thriller, the morality centers around the principle of due process which. as his crusading lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) says in arguing for inalienable rights in the face of the national hysteria which was gripping America during the height of the nuclear arms race, is what precisely separates us from the enemy. The film is particularly relevant today due to threats to our legal system posed, ironically, by the outrage over injustice. There isn’t a day when some victimized group is not aching to speed up the process, just as the judge in the trial of the Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) was ready to do when he refused to throw out inadmissible evidence. By the way, Rylance’s performance is the proof that there’s nothing like a great Shakespearean actor when you're trying to play the part of a stoic spy whose morality derives from his unbreakability. The expression about people wearing many hats is particularly apt in the case of Bridge of Spies. It’s the 50’s and everyone wears them and in the dramatic penultimate scene when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is traded for Abel the two prisoners are wearing the hats of their captors, respectively Russian Ushanka and a fedora. Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the screenplay so we shouldn’t be surprised at the masterful orchestration of these and other themes in a succession of musical leitmotifs. If constitutional issues provide the spine, the art of negotiation, at which the real life character on whom Hanks' role is based apparently excelled, provides the suspense. Donovan was an insurance investigator and the movie begins with him representing the bad guys and arguing to limit liability; at the end playing the opposite role he successfully argues for more, effecting the release of two Americans (Powers and a Yale economics graduate student named Frederic Pryor, played in the film by Will Rogers). Both the global themes and the minor details (Donovan’s wife serves a perfectly 50’s meal of meatloaf, carrots and peas and his kids watch 77 Sunset Strip when they aren’t being haunted by jeremiads about nuclear attack) are seamlessly woven into a final product which only gives one pause because of how neatly its tied together and how inexorably And Quiet Flows the Don.

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