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Bridge of Spies PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
27 12 2015

ImageDirected by Steven Spielberg

A rubbish title for a great film! Last week I saw Carol, a film in 50s love-melodrama mode, with colour and emotion and gorgeous frocks, roles to die for, reminiscent of the great mournful-eyed divas of old Hollywood - what would those days have been called a ‘woman's picture'. And then in the same week along comes a ‘man's picture' - subdued palette, men in suits, subsidiary women, courtrooms and panelled offices, international shenanigans, moral choices, and at the heart of it a role that would have been taken by one of the greats. Tom Hanks has the heft and honesty of, say, James Stewart or Joel McCrea, managing to combine gravitas with an almost playful touch, a deeply moral hero who wears his decency lightly.

Hanks plays Thomas Donovan, an insurance lawyer who out of the blue is asked to take on a case which his more illustrious colleagues won't touch. It's to defend suspected soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a thankless and to many distasteful task but one that has to be done to ensure a fair trial (though the verdict is never in doubt). Donovan is a typical Spielberg hero, upright, ordinary, but willing to take risks to do the right thing, a family man aware that there are things bigger than family. The two men find a mutual respect and almost friendship, each recognising the other's moral compass. Establishment expectations that Donovan will merely ‘go through the motions' are confounded when he fights tenaciously for Abel, and after the inevitable guilty verdict he devotes his energies to persuading the judge against the death penalty, with the argument that he may be useful in future if a spy swap might be needed. Here ends the first part of the plot, which we take up four years later when a US aerial reconnaissance spy plane is shot down over the USSR and the young pilot, Gary Powers, captured and held for interrogation. The moment for a swap has arrived, and Donovan is detailed to be the intermediary. The movie changes from 12 Angry Men mode into a Funeral in Berlin atmosphere, as Donovan travels to East Berlin to effect the changeover, picking up on the way the case of American student Frederic Pryor who has been imprisoned by the East Germans, whose cause he adopts as a personal crusade. What's good enough for a young airforce pilot caught spying is good enough for an innocent student arrested for being in the wrong place.

The film is saved from any potential stodginess and self-importance its forebears might have been guilty of by the ultra light hand of the Brothers Coen on the script, moving the plot along with some verve, and with their trademark homing-in on small details - Donovan's bad cold in Berlin is almost a character in itself.

It's very refreshing to see a film so solidly and old fashionedly made that's still aware of nuance and the absurdities of espionage. Rylance and Hanks make a superb team, two men who in normal circumstances would have rubbed along nicely together, with more in common than either of their masters. Above all, it's a thoroughly entertaining, decent, film.

Seen December 2015, Cineworld, Boldon

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