For those like me who don’t often (read never) get to the West End or Broadway, the name Mark Rylance may mean little or nothing. For those familiar with his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in the successful TV series, Wolf Hall, he will be readily recognisable as a quality actor.
However, he is apparently more than that, considered the finest stage actor of his generation, winning two Olivier’s, three Tony’s and a BAFTA for theTV movie The Government Inspector (2005).
When he turned up in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015), it was in ignorance I believed the casting was purely off the success of Wolf Hall. Clearly in learning the aforementioned, I now know better.
In Bridge of Spies, Rylance plays Rudolf Abel a Soviet spy arrested, tried and convicted after an FBI surveillance operation bursts into a hotel room in Brooklyn, New York. His performance is a masterpiece of understatement, especially in scenes played with the current elder statesman of US film, Tom Hanks.
To accommodate the blood lust of the American public during the fear of atomic bomb attack, the US Constitution comes in for a hiding as all the government and the law want to do is give Abel fair representation before returning a speedy guilty verdict and putting him in the electric chair. Bridge of Spies tells us that once James B. Donovan (Hanks) was appointed his lawyer, this wasn’t going to be as easy as the majority wanted.
Donovan, an expert in insurance litigation but with work at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals on his CV, doesn’t sit down lightly and let the rest of America ride roughshod over the constitution he so boldly upholds.
We are introduced to him, discussing an insurance case with his opposition counsel over a drink in a smart bar. It is a telling scene as it shows the character of the man and much of the way his mind works. Semantics are important and he continually corrects the other party on definition while the man pleads his argument.
Donovan respects but does not for a moment condone the actions of Abel and convinces the sentencing judge that the spy is worth more to the Americans alive than dead. When Abel is given 30 years rather than the chair, it sets back the cause of ‘patriotic’ America, earning Donovan and his family unfair attack.
As this unfolds, the story of Francis Gary Powers is told in tandem. Powers is part of a covert CIA team flying photographic missions over Soviet territory in a U2. He is shot down on his first sortie and the Americans want him back before he talks. Unlike Abel, who tells his captors nothing, the inexperienced Powers has already failed to kill himself (as his orders instructed if shot down) and could become an intelligence leak the Americans cannot countenance. Another side story of an American student being caught the wrong side of the Berlin Wall as it is being built, adds another dimension. He is held by the German Democratic Republic in East Berlin; Powers by the Russians.
Donovan’s prediction has come to pass and the still-breathing Abel has become a valuable trade for these young Americans. Certainly the CIA thinks so and Donovan is seconded to get Powers back using Abel as a trade.
However, the ignorance of the Americans is rife. They consider anything over the wall is Russia. East Germany is not recognised. The two countries in the Soviet bloc make things difficult for Donovan but he is a steely old cove, who won’t leave a man behind. This causes the CIA a lot of angst but Donovan will not be swayed and runs the operation with canny skill and great personal inconvenience – he without US government sanction is put in a hovel in West Berlin while his minders stay at the Hilton. When Donovan spends a night in an East Berlin jail cell, he tells the CIA it was not much worse than the place they put him in.
Bridge of Spies, written by tyro Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men) is an unusual movie for its era. It seems very old fashioned, which isn’t a bad thing. It reminded me more of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Doctor Zhivago than a Hollywood film. Perhaps it was the duration time, which I didn’t find too long at all.
The re-creation of clothing, motor vehicles, residences and streetscapes was brilliant but there was just a little bit too much American ballyhoo for mine. The US seemed almost always in sunshine; East Berlin, a Dickensian snowscape. We don’t see much of the Americans interrogating Abel; Powers is tortured with sleep deprivation.
The music, created by the celebrated Thomas Newman, after long-time Spielberg collaborator John Williams pulled out of the project when he became ill (since better for Williams’ fans), had moments of All-American schmaltz that would have been better left off. Rally round the flag boys.
However, we did get Hanks in top form; Rylance under-playing beautifully and German actor Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others), appearing in a rare US movie. Smartly dressed, impossibly handsome and driving the model of white Volvo first made famous as Roger Moore’s wheels in the 1962 television series The Saint, Koch was arrogant and assured as the East German lawyer whose lifestyle looked a lot different from the rest of his countrymen.
The closing shots showed all went reasonably well for the principals after this episode and if Donovan was half the man as portrayed, he was a hero like those played by James Stewart and Gary Cooper in the kind of movies Spielberg would have watched as a boy and Ethan and Joel Cohen were probably weaned on as well.