Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Cold War in Warm Rooms

The Cold War. Courtroom Drama. Spies. Individually, these elements have each produced some great works of cinema. We make think of Dr Strangelove or A Few Good Men or even Skyfall, but what happens when you take these three aspects, roll them all together, and put Spielberg behind the camera? This is Bridge of Spies.

When Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian spyis captured by the FBI, it is extremely important for the image of the United States of America that he gets fair representation at trial and therefore someone must be appointed the lawyer for the most hated man in America. The lawyer that gets appointed is James B. Donavan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer, and he has to convince the country not to kill his client. His argument begins to hinge on the notion that, should it be required, Abel could be used to trade for any similarly captured Americans. When a U-2 spy plane and its pilot are shot down over Russia as well as an American student getting arrested after crossing the Berlin Wall, suddenly having Abel alive becomes an appealing idea.

Abel (Mark Rylance) and Donavan (Tom Hanks)
 in the court room

Over the years, Tom Hanks has developed from a loveable young, romantic comedy star, into a serious award winning actor, and then into some sort of friendly and yet exceptional everyman. He continues that trend here in Bridge of Spies. Donavan is a family man who works in insurance and he is suddenly thrust into an extraordinary  situation and Hank's performance reflects this. He is charming yet firm and powerful. He is warm and loving, yet determined and authoritative. It is a hard balance to strike, but not for someone as accomplished as Hanks. Rylance, already an established presence on the stage, is the standout performance here though, and the film rests on this. The success on how the audience engage with the film's narrative is dependant on how they relate to Abel. As the soft spoken Russian spy, Rylance is absolutely delightful and, despite being a traitor to the United States, we root for him and against the American government.

Tom Hanks as Donavan's world begins to change

Spielberg's influence over Hollywood is vast. Year after year he makes brilliant, award-winning films. With Bridge of Spies, he continues in excellent form, but the film is undoubtably improved and made whole by Joel and Ethan Coen's tinkering with Matt Charman screenplay. In a film that is centred around talking and negotiating, the Coens pump life into a dialogue-heavy second act. They bring warmth to the Cold War in the form of Hank's Donavan, though never letting the intensity of the situation slip away. Accompanied by small yet spectacular set pieces, brilliantly captured by Spielberg's camera, the film's visual construction sometimes says more than the Coen's words ever could. A gentle foot chase through the rain, a train carriage of staring faces, a snowy and still Glienicke Bridge scattered with shadowy figures.

Whilst there are dips in pace, Bridge of Spies seamlessly combines several genres and exhibits some of the finest performances of the year. It also proves that Spielberg may not be revolutionising the cinematic world with the likes of Jaws and E.T., but he has not lost any of his film making power. 

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