Spielberg Gets Nostalgic About the Cold War
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
If George Clooney is this generation’s Cary Grant, then Tom Hanks must be our Jimmy Stewart. A decent, idealistic, down-to-earth everyman.
You see, “Bridge of Spies” is a Cold War drama based on true events, the 1962 spy-swap of Soviet agent Rudolph Abel for downed US U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.
James B. Donovan (played by Hanks) was a lawyer hired by the US government to represent Abel (Mark Rylance) in his spy trial, and then later negotiate his exchange for Powers (Austin Stowell).
It was a time of paranoia and fear. “Is there any outcome where I’m not detained or shot?” Donovan asks.
The film -- showing this week at Tropic Cinema -- portrays Donovan as a reluctant hero, an insurance man who considers himself unqualified for the high-stakes assignment. In real life, Donovan had been an attorney for the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) and a representative at the Nuremberg war trials.
The script by British dramatist Mark Chapman was tweaked by Joel and Ethan Coen. The result is sort of a Capra-esque look at a simpler time when doing the right thing was easier to figure out. Even if unpopular.
Spielberg has made half-a-dozen or so war films (“Schindler’s List,” etc.). They often feature a man with a strong moral center. And for that matter, Frank Capra made the “Why We Fight” war films.
Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra did three films together. This is Hanks’ fourth collaboration with Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “The Terminal” being the first three). Predictably, Hanks is masterful in his approach, a low-key delivery with an iron core of moral certitude.
Co-star Mark Rylance holds his own, giving a subtle Oscar-worthy performance as the Ruskie spy who comes to respect his American lawyer. The winner of two Olivier Awards and three Tonys, Rylance is regarded by many as the greatest stage actor of his generation.
The film was shot on locations in New York, Germany, and Poland, including some of the very places where these events took place. The prisoner exchange scene was filmed on the Glienicke Bridge (a/k/a the Bridge of Spies) where the historical exchange actually occurred. So the film’s backdrops have a visual authenticity that spills over onto the storytelling.
Why is Steven Spielberg so meticulous in his war film? Because the triple Oscar-winner is a consummate moviemaker, of course. But when pressed, he reveals, “My father had gone to Russia on a foreign exchange right in the middle of the Cold War when there was tremendous fear and distrust.” Francis Gary Powers had just been shot down and they were putting the wreckage of the U-2 on display. Spielberg’s father and three other GE engineers were pointed out, with a Russian colonel angrily shouting, “Look what your country is doing to us.”
Spielberg says, “I never forgot that story. And because of that I never forgot what happened to Francis Gary Powers.” And that’s why we have this movie, “Bridge of Spies.”