Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Bridge Of Spies (spoilers)

I've been to Berlin. I didn't like it very much. If you were of a mind to do so you can read about it in this column's big sister, Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard. I mention it here because I was reminded of it by Bridge Of Spies, a new Tom Hanks film that is part courtroom drama and part espionage thriller. And wholly and refreshingly good.

It's 1957 and the height of the Cold War. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are at their frostiest. Both sides have developed an intense paranoia about the possibility of being nuked to extinction by the other, and so both use spies to try and gather the information they think they need to survive. Or at least get their retaliation in first. Pick up a paper or turn on your television in 2015 and you will see that levels of paranoia are only just below what they were 58 years ago. Only the list of people we're supposed to fear has got bigger.

Back in '57 one such Soviet spy is Rudolph Abel played by Mark Rylance. Abel's house is ransacked by US police looking for evidence of espionage. They find some stuff, but it turns out that they haven't got a warrant so none of it is admissable. Not that this bothers cranky, Soviet hating, God-fearing, salt of the Earth Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) when Abel is charged regardless and brought to court. Defending him is insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Hanks) who seems to know very little about criminal law and appears to have been appointed by the government for that very reason. Never mind due process. There is too much at stake and Abel must not go free. Yet he must be seen to have been given a fair defence, hence Hanks must take the fall. The best he can do is to persuade Judge Byers not to hand Abel the death penalty, successfully arguing that it would be useful to have a Soviet spy in their possession should they ever need one to trade for one of their own.

Lo and....yes......behold that is exactly what happens. While Abel is at kangaroo court a US pilot is shot down over Soviet airspace while on.....you guessed it.....a spying mission. In the briefing before the mission he and his colleagues are expressly ordered to sacrifice themselves to avoid capture if necessary. They don't want secrets about their new technology getting out, nor do they want the Soviets to know that they've been spied on from above with what at that time constituted state of the art camera technology. One pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) loses his bottle on the whole sacrifice thing and so eventually, after a bit too much deliberation and debate, a trade looks on.

But there's a complication. At around about the same time an American student is captured trying to escape East Berlin as the Berlin Wall goes up. This is where my memories of Berlin come in. It was snowy and -13 and we couldn't get hime for days because English airports had closed. Yet it was an awful lot worse in the 50's and 60's . As the student tries to flee several people are shot dead trying to get over the wall while at Checkpoint Charlie a stream of unfortunates are routinely stopped, questioned, threatened and generally bullied by the authorities. Communism is rising, and suddenly the Americans have two people to retrieve and only one spy to trade with.

As that spy Rylance has been in several Oscar conversations. His performance is solid, even powerful, but the calm indifference of his character has to make things easier. It's surely easier to act indifferent to your fate when it's all pretend anyway. It may have been more challenging for Rylance if Abel had behaved like the gibbering, desperate wreck most of us would be if facing charged of espionage in the US, and then having to worry about what might happen to you if and when you are turned back over to your own side. Will they accept that you did your job well or will it be assumed that you betrayed your country as a bargaining tool?

Hanks is his usual colossal presence in screen while still managing to make you believe he's plain old Jim, while my only real gripe is with the pacing. It becomes fairly obvious what is going to happen at a certain point, but it still takes an awful lot longer than it should to get there. I guess that is what happens when you are dealing with material based on a true story. You have to stay true to it where possible, but a little side-step over the minutae here and there would have made this belter of a film perhaps even better.

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