With Russia once again trying to establish itself as a world power, I find myself thinking about the Cold War.
School children being told to duck and cover, high-flying spy planes and the Berlin Wall are just some of the symbols that come to mind. Steven Spielberg’s new film, “Bridge of Spies,” plays on these images to recreate the paranoia of that era.
Tom Hanks plays Jim Donovan, a New York insurance lawyer who is chosen by the American Bar Association to head the defense of Rudolf Abel played by Mark Rylance. Abel is accused of being, a Soviet spy in America who masquerades as a painter.
Donovan is only supposed to be a seat warmer to give the impression that Abel is receiving a fair trial, but this being a Spielberg film, Donovan will make sure he gets his trial. The trope of the “in-over-his-head” character is made clearer when an American spy piloting a secret aircraft crashes deep in Soviet territory and Donovan is chosen to negotiate the exchange.
“Bridge of Spies” is beautifully shot by the cinematographer and frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski.
The world of 1950s America is shot in muted colors that seem to shine, while the world of the Soviet Union and East Berlin are similar to that of dark European New Wave films, like François Truffaut and Roberto Rossellini. The colorless pallet of East Berlin creates stunning images of the stereotypical American view of communism during that period.
For example, In a scene where the American pilot Francis Gary Powers (played by Austin Stowell) is brought before the Soviet court, red dominates the screen as the camera cranes away to reveal the “evil empire” that President Ronald Reagan described.
Also, an opening sequence where the CIA and FBI follow Abel around New York City before ambushing him in his apartment would have been ruined by dramatic music under other directors, but Spielberg shoots it masterfully with only the noises of the city like William Friedkin did in his film “The French Connection.”
Steven Spielberg must have approached directing “Bridge of Spies” with the same ease as an honors student taking the SATs. Any other director would have struggled with the complex source material and setting, trying to make an action packed spy thriller from what really needed to be treated as a court room drama.
“Bridge of Spies” is far from a traditional spy thriller. I suspect that Cold War espionage was nothing like the James Bond films that were filled with glamorous cocktail parties attended by eccentric villains and handsome gentlemen spies in some far off locale. Instead, most of the espionage was probably done by middle-aged men in Washington, Moscow and Berlin within the walls of meeting rooms and dinner tables. Or in the case of one particular scene in the film, a big American breakfast table.
Is “Bridge of Spies” the best of this filmmakers’ extensive resume? For others it would be, but for Spielberg, who has directed such films as “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Schindler’s List,” it holds a minor footnote in his career.
The film is playing at Century Downtown Plaza 7, Century Stadium 14 and Century Laguna 16.