Our editor is keen that we relay the experience of our field be it a restaurant dining or watching sport on tv or at the stadium. Thus Richard said to me “Neil, don’t go to the press viewing of Bridge of Spies, as you will be at the mercy of the marketing people and the critic’ cartel, but go independently a month later to a normal picture house”.
So yesterday I went to a local Cineworld to see the Spielberg film. You have to sit through the trailers of at least 6 other blockbusters. I was struck by how many to be released films were “based on fact”. Is it cinema’s role to convey fact? I think of one of my favourite films, Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, the erotic fantasies of a bourgeois housewife, when you never know if these are “real” or “fictitious”. Italian cineastes of the 60s are particularly good at “fantasia”. Besides how true are these films? The last Tom Hanks film I saw Captain Phillips neglected to inform that he was advised to chart a path 600 miles off the coast not 250 and was sued by the crew. The other thing I noted in the cinema was the noise of people eating, even though it was 25% full it was like the household cavalry on a gravel drive as there was the ubiquitous crunching of popcorn munching from paper containers. Why do you need to eat between 5-7 anyway? I had a muffin and mince pie with a cup of tea before I left. One person just behind me was rustling way so gratingly it became an impediment to following the film.
As to the film it is the “true” story of the exchange of the Russian spy Rudi Abel (Mark Rylance) for Gary Powers set at a time when the Cold war was at its height. This was conducted by lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks). In many ways it espoused traditonal Hollywood values. James Stewart or Gregory Peck could have played the lawyer dedicated to the professional ethic of defending a spy despised by the populace and trial judge. The film polarised into American capitalist good and Russian communist evil. Abel was given a fair trail and kept in humane conditions, Powers was not and brutally interrogated. Somebody needed to remind the filmmakers of Guantanemo Bay and the witchhunt of the Macarthy era.
The opening scene of Abel being tracked and arrested was a wonderful piece of cinema. It brought you right into the film and 50s Brooklyn with clever camera work. It was one of three memorable set pieces in the film. The trial scene which occupied the first half was more gripping than the slower second half of Donovan negotiating the exchange. A second American Prior, an economics student, is arrested as the Wall goes up, another memorable scene, and held by the East Germans whose country is not recognised by the USA. This makes the negotiation three way between Donovan, the East German Attorney General and the Russian KGB spymaster convoluted and the film pedestrian. The final sequence should have been the exchange on the bridge but, true to American values, we had to see Donovan coming home to his family, kids watching the tv report praising their dad and loving wife. A better scene followed when he goes to work on a train and sees some youths scaling garden walls, compared in his mind to him witnessing an escapee being shot at the Wall on the train from East Berlin.
Mark Rylance delivers the best performance as Abel. He is an actor of immense subtlety and nuance whom I find more sympathetic than the more formulaic American hero Donovan. His senior partner in his law firm was played by Alan Alda now nearly 80. He is one of my favourite actors, best known for MASH, but a director and actor in many a worthwhile picture. As you would expect from a Spielberg/Coen brothers production it’s a film that is visually exciting (the third memorable scene is Powers in his U2 spy plane bailing out). It replicates the America of the 50s with accurate detail as well as the shabby suits and even shabbier milieu of East Berlin and I would mark it down in the “worth seeing” category. It cost $60m to make and grossed $40m. It looks like it’s on its last showings in the Cineworld so it may not be a commercial success though it may have strong rental appeal.