Bridge Of Spies: The Humane Exchange Program

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Reading Time: 6 minutes


A quick quiz to exercise your vision on patriotism and betrayal: let’s say there’s this RAW agent who is embedded in Pakistan, carrying out espionage on India’s behalf. Completely dedicated to our country’s cause, he’s a thorough gentleman in every sense, a well-behaved citizen in Pakistan, but stealing information from there to pass on to our agents here. Would you call him a patriot? Hang on to that answer. Now, imagine his counterpart from Pakistan, operating in India, following the same decorum and dignity, and completely true to his country’s cause. Would he meet your rigorous specifications of a patriot? Another sub-question – imagine both these agents get caught while carrying out service to their respective countries. How would you want Pakistan to deal with our RAW agent? And how would you want the agent from Pakistan to be handled? Would you wear the same lens for both situations? Or, is it myopia in one eye and hypermetropia in the other?

This is the blurring dilemma that director Steven Spielberg handles in his latest venture from behind the lens, “Bridge Of Spies”.  Based on the amazing true story of James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) in 1957, and written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel), this is fine drama, handled with dignified maturity and finesse by the director and his band of high-class writers.  Donovan is a successful insurance lawyer, a partner in a top insurance litigation firm. He’s roped in to represent Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian spy operating in Brooklyn, to show the world that the United States gives a fair trial and chance to one and all, and to ensure that the USSR does not capitalize on this incident. Donovan, initially hesitant, is egged on by the senior partner in his firm, Thomas Watters Jr. (Alan Alda), to take on the case for the country’s sake. Donovan plunges into the case in right earnest, meeting up with Abel, getting to know him, and even going to the judge for a mistrial because there wasn’t a proper arrest warrant. As the case progresses, the American public, the judge, Donovan’s wife,  Mary (Amy Ryan), his children, partners, and the folks on the subway he travels on, all look at him in askance, at best questioning his trenchant pursuit for justice, at worst attacking his home and accusing him of betrayal.

In tandem unfolds the story of pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who’s one of four pilots picked for a secret mission to fly the U-2 aircraft from the American airbase in Islamabad over Russian skies, and take photographs. As luck and true story would have it, his plane is shot down, he’s captured, and taken in for interrogation by the Russians. This sets in motion a mission kicked off by the CIA to exchange Abel and Powers, and Donovan is asked if he’d carry out the negotiations with the Russians. Donovan agrees, but the talks must take place in East Berlin (the wall is being built as the story progresses). Add to this mix some mysterious messages from Abel’s family, the arrest of American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) in East Berlin, and Donovan’s insistence on getting back both Powers and Pryor for handing over Abel, and what you have a miasma of drama and engaging storytelling that keeps you hooked till the last frame.

Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks shine.
Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks shine.

Director Spielberg is in fine form, capturing the gloom and gloam of Brooklyn and Germany, even as he nuances out beautiful scenes in the movie. He bathes the movie with gentle humor and underplayed drama, even as he moves it along at a pace that’s steady, firm, and gripping, shorn of any bathetic pretensions or jingoism. The film is nicely atmospheric, and Spielberg is helped by his keen and able editor Michael Kahn, who is in superb form as he places the Abel and Powers track side-by-side, beautifully seguing from one to the other in the most unaffected way. Note the scene where the judge comes into the courtroom and the bailiff announces “All rise”, and Kahn and Spielberg show you children getting up in their classroom. This is classy stuff. Spielberg also makes the exchange scene an unforgettable one. This is the most humorous and moving exchange scenes I have ever seen. It makes you smile, laugh in relief, and fight back tears, all at the same time.

“Bridge of Spies” has a commendable star cast, right from the officer who arrests Abel in the beginning, Agent Blasco, played by the superb Domenick Lombardozzi (from the fantastic TV show, “The Wire”). Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife is quietly effective, not aiming to bamboozle, but conveying her worry and angst beautifully. And it is such an effusive pleasure to watch Alan Alda, as always. In the few scenes he is up there, he’s smooth as single malt, happy to be supportive and critical of Donovan, as required. Dakin Mathews as Judge Byers is superb, stupefied by Donovan’s persistence, and then delivering a judgment that makes the exchange possible at all.

Tom Hanks nails it, deep and proper.
Tom Hanks nails it, deep and proper.

But the movie belongs to Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. They complement each other brilliantly, playing off each other in scenes with dialogues that are gentle word plays, yet agile and nimble footed, meaningful, yet humorous. As Donovan, Tom Hanks nails it deep and proper. He’s superb, a submarine of assertiveness, while showing a calm and almost fastidious surface. His is a performance that comes along and simply guides you by the hand into beautiful cinema. As in the scene where he realizes he’s being followed one rainy night; or the scene where his house is attacked; or when he tries to explain to his son why defending Abel isn’t the wrong thing; his horror at the murders on the Berlin wall, and the beautiful moving end scene on the subway train.  Tom Hanks makes you want shake his hand and say, “Well done, Donovan!” , even as you’re worried you’ll catch his cold and sniffles.

Mark Rylance moves you, makes you laugh, yet underplays it.
Mark Rylance moves you, makes you laugh, yet underplays it.

Mark Rylance is equally brilliant as the reticent, eyebrows-raised, poker-faced, soft-spoken Russian spy. He’s so good, your heart goes out to him, as does Donovan’s. Rylance conveys his story and his expressions softly, with a beautiful feather-like touch that moves you, makes you laugh, and go along with him for the exchange.  There’s this beautiful scene between Hanks and Rylance in the jail, when the latter’s telling a story of his childhood, and talks of a man who he came to call “The standing man.” That scene is so well directed and acted, it goes from humor to a gentle-tug-at-your-heart in a twirl.

And there’s the background score by Thomas Newman that’s as good as the lead actors. Newman rustles up his orchestra 20 minutes into the movie, and that’s for the scene where Hanks is being followed. That’s some beautiful horns, the piano tinkling like raindrops, and the violins halting and faltering, like Hanks himself. Also the “Standing Man” theme in the aforementioned scene in the jail – when the violins glide in gently into the scene, they bring with them a gentle gush of emotions that you simply flow into, such a beautiful piece that is.  Then, there’s the negotiation scene between the Russian official and Hanks. Thomas Newman ushers in male chorals that are haunting, unnerving, and make you shiver at the hostile environs you find Donovan in. Equally moving is the music for the climactic exchange, as Newman gets you engaged and into it. Or the beautiful violins and horns for the homecoming scene, the piano so lovely and gracefully moving with the violins.

As the credits roll, and Spielberg superbly rings out a comparison between the Berlin wall horror and schoolkids in the US jumping over a wall, playing, you know there’s much that humanity has suffered in wars, cold or otherwise. And having the freedom for kids to play out in the open is just one of the privileges that you cannot and should not take for granted.  It’s a gift that you don’t realize you’re lucky to have even as wars continue to ravage countries, and you look for an exchange program in this madness that’ll bring back a semblance of humane behavior. A tall order that, even for Donovan.

Watch the trailer of Bridge Of Spies here:

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