Pride, decency, nationalism, and the Bridge of Spies (also the Mill Valley Film Festival screening in Corte Madera)

A- Espionage drama

Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Two superpowers, each hating and fearing the other as a military and ideological enemy, face each other off. Neither wants to back down. Neither wants to give an inch. But both know full well that if their cold war ever got hot, it would be the end of both of them–and probably the end of civilization.

Such is the setting of Steven Spielberg’s complex and cerebral espionage drama, Bridge of Spies. Note that I said drama, not thriller. There’s very little conventional suspense or action in this picture. The film concentrates on court rooms and international negotiations. Some minor characters face imprisonment or execution, but the protagonist is only briefly in danger.

That protagonist is a New York lawyer named James Donovan (Tom Hanks). As the film begins in 1957, he’s asked to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). He’s not particularly happy about defending a “commie,” but he realizes that everyone deserves a fair trial. In fact, he seems to be the only person in America who realizes that.

Rylance, Spielberg, and his screenwriters (who include the Coen Brothers) turn this spy into a very nice, and even admirable guy. Quiet, self-effacing, and resigned, he spends his time painting cityscapes and self-portraits. When arrested, he refuses to become a turncoat and help the American government–the exact response we’d hope to get from an American spy. Donovan respects Abel’s courage and the two begin an uneasy friendship.

But the film isn’t really about Abel’s trial, or even about the way that trial turns Donovan into one of the most hated men in America. The bulk of the story concerns Donovan’s trip to Berlin in the early 1960s to arrange a spy swap: Abel for Gary Powers–an American spy-plane pilot whose plane was shot down by the Russians.

Meanwhile, the East Germans are holding an American student, and Donovan decides to free him, as well. The East Germans have their own agenda–they want to be seen in the West as a real country, not a Russian puppet.

A handful of scenes are in German. Unfortunately, those scenes lack subtitles. I don’t know why. I’m hoping it was a problem with the pre-release DCP.

A title card at the very beginning tells us that the picture is “inspired by a true story.” I don’t know how much of it is truth, and how much is inspiration, but I like that word inspired. Too many narrative films based on actual events claim that they stick close to the facts. Sometimes they even do what they claim, which usually results in a bad movie.

Bridge of Spies takes you into the early Mad Men era, but without the glamourous clothes. It captures the fear and paranoia on both sides at the very moment when the Berlin Wall was going up. much of it is dark and unsettling, especially in Berlin.

Tom Hanks plays his patented decent American guy (yeah, I know, James Steward actually owns the patent). His Donovan appears to be a reasonably good lawyer who turns, through experience, into a great negotiator. But he has little faith in his own abilities. In his own eyes, he’s a lost American with no overcoat and a bad cold, stumbling in the dark as he faces more skilled adversaries. Hanks doesn’t give us a great performance, but he gives us everything we need, including a star that we’re used to rooting for.

For most of the film, Spielberg avoids the smooth camera movements, the Spielberg Face, and the other tricks that tend to drown many of his films in sentimentality. But when Donovan comes home to his loving family, the sentimentality is laid on thick. There’s even an absurdly convenient TV news broadcast. The movie would have ended much better if it had ended ten minutes sooner. (Maybe five minutes sooner, but it felt like ten.)

I saw the film Tuesday at a Mill Valley Film Festival screening at the Corte Madera Century Cinema. None of the filmmakers were in attendance, and there was no Q&A.

The Corte Madera is a rarity in today’s world: A single-screen first-run theater. But that single screen is one of the best in the Bay Area–huge and curved and perfect for immersive cinema. Amongst the films I saw there in first run were The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home–all in 70mm. (Bridge of Spies isn’t particularly immersive, and didn’t really need that screen.)