Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Bridge of Spies - film review

Bridge of Spies is a 2015 Steven Spielberg film, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, with a script co-authored by the Coen brothers. With a pedigree like that, I expected something special, and I'm glad to say that I wasn't disappointed. This is quite a long film, but it's so watchable from start to finish that the time zipped by. It's not always like that with long films, but Spielberg is a master craftsman.

The story is based, quite closely, on real life events. It shows my ignorance of much American history that I wasn't aware of the Powers-Abel case, though I am familiar with its British equivalent, the Greville Wynne-Gordon Lonsdale case. Inevitably, some aspects of the story are rendered more dramatically than the way in which they occurred in real life, but I gather that the essentials of the story are captured fairly faithfully.

The action takes place during the Cold War, in the late 50s. Rylance plays Abel a tight-lipped Russian agent (in fact, Abel was born in Benwell, in Newcastle, and educated in Whitley Bay) who is caught and charged with espionage. Hanks plays Jim Donovan an insurance lawyer who is, rather oddly, brought in to defend him. I'm not sure that the insurance lawyers I know would relish conducting high profile criminal advocacy, but that's another story. The judge is appallingly biased (I would like to think that the script exaggerates this - his behaviour is utterly crass) and Abel is convicted; he is not, however, sentenced to death, but is imprisoned instead.

Powers, a pilot on a spying mission, falls into Russian hands, and the CIA persuade Donovan to broker an exchange of spies. Matters get complicated when a young American student is arrested in East Berlin, and Donovan resolves to try to free him as well. It was rather poignant, watching the Berlin Wall being built, and seeing soldiers shooting at people trying to escape. It took me back to an unforgettable trip to West Berlin in 1975. I stayed in a flat right next to the wall with Ute Wehmeyer and her family, and sometimes heard shots being fired. It was truly chilling and quite unforgettable.

Thankfully there was a happy ending to the story of Berlin's artificial division, and the experience of walking freely through the Brandenburg Gate when I returned to the city in more recent times was really memorable. But does the film have a happy ending? You'll have to watch it to find out...

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