Saturday, March 5, 2016

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies (2015) is a big grab-bag of a movie, indeed, a film that feels as if it incorporates several pictures, each of them of a different genre.  Part of the film involves an honorable lawyer's defense of a publicly maligned Soviet spy -- the lawyer, played by Tom Hanks as an inspirational everyman, defends the spy at great risk to his personal reputation even putting the safety of his family on the line.  (His home is attacked by anonymous assailants who use a machine gun to shoot up the knickknacks in the place.)  This part of the film has something of the flavor of To Kill a Mockingbird and features a number of set-piece speeches about democracy and the rule of law that would fit nicely in a Frank Capra movie.  A second film embedded in the first involves the U-2 spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers and his detention (and cruel interrogation) by the Soviet authorities -- this sub-film climaxes with a spectacular aerial sequence in which the U-2 is shot down, Powers entangled in the plane by his parachute, whipping around the pin-wheeling aircraft like one of the characters in Gravity.  The third element in Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a variant on Schindler's List -- the heroic lawyer travels to Berlin and in the grime and debris of the shattered eastern district negotiates for the release of both the imprisoned U-2 pilot and an economics student that the East Germans are holding hostage.  This part of the movie is shot in ugly monochrome, a dull bluish miasma enfolding the wrecked city, big flakes of snow always falling out of overcast skies.  Ultimately, the hero manages to swap the Soviet spy that he earlier, and unsuccessfully, defended for both Powers and the hapless economics student.  This part of the film is invested with a convincing Middle-European malaise and contains large-scale sequences involving the erection of the Berlin Wall.  Spielberg directs efficiently, keeps all balls in the air simultaneously, and the movie is very exciting and well-made.  Tom Hanks does a fine job, although he seems a generation too old for the part -- he has young children still at home and a perky youthful wife although the actor looks as if he is about 65.  (In any event, his age gives his role a certain weary gravitas that it might not otherwise possess -- particularly in the scene in which he looks around guiltily at the ruin of his house after it has been machine-gunned.)  Most notably, Bridge of Spies features a remarkable performance by Mark Rylance as the Soviet agent -- Rylance is made up, very convincingly, to look at least twenty years older than his chronological age and his fatigued and hopeless stoicism is exceptionally moving.

Everyone knows that Spielberg is a much gifted director.  He always places the camera in a position to assure the image's maximum legibility.  In effect, Spielberg trains his viewers to know exactly where to look, even if his scenes sometimes teem with extras.  An early example of Spielberg's magisterial abilities with respect to mise-en-scene is a standard issue chase through a crowded subway system.  Spielberg's camera picks up Rylance scurrying through midday crowds to elude pursuing FBI agents -- this part of the film has some of vivid, harried quality of a Sam Fuller picture.  The camera tracks Rylance in a huge moving crowd -- then, suddenly we see two attractive girls in light-colored clothing moving against the flow of the crowd.  Our eye immediately registers the girls and is tricked into following them to the right, away from Rylance who is pushing himself through the mob to the left.  As the camera follows the girls to the right, it catches sight of the FBI pursuers who are behind Rylance but moving to the right -- once the camera centers on the FBI men, it then follows them moving to the left through the crowd.  Spielberg mounts this large-scale and complex sequence effortlessly and the way that he guides the viewer's eye by using the girls in brighter clothing to motivate the camera into a new position is a joy to behold.  In this respect, however, I also express a bit of a reservation -- Spielberg's editing is so didactic and he stages scenes so clearly, that, in a way, the viewer sometimes feels manipulated, press-ganged into seeing things exactly as Spielberg wants us to see things.  For instance, the bravura sequence showing the Berlin Wall being built is constructed as a very long tracking shot between the opposing sides, the bricks of the wall being literally stacked and assembled in the center of the frame -- the scene is impressive, wracked with agitated activity, but, somehow, seems to me just a little bit too tidy for the savage human reality that it portrays.  Similarly, Spielberg's cross-cutting between his three plots is very overt and almost preachy, that is, designed to make didactic points -- when Tom Hanks talks about reciprocity, that is, treating the Soviet spy humanely in the hope that the Russians will treat our captured prisoners kindly, he cuts from Hanks making this speech directly to a close-up of Francis Gary Powers.  I also have a sense that everything in the film is just slightly too large -- the interior spaces are cavernous, particular the court rooms and the Assembly of the People in which Powers is tried.  The law firm where Hanks' character is employed, in particular, is a hive of activity sprawling across a half-acre of open office -- the color scheme and the mobs of secretaries hustling back and forth don't seem exactly persuasive to me; it's as if we've happened onto one of those Western streets strangely crowded with merchants and cowboys and saloon girls and Indians.  There are flaws in the film but it is generally very good -- Hanks' delivers what seems to me to be the worst address to the U. S. Supreme Court ever made; he would score points in Mr. Smith goes to Washington with this oration but not with a real court.  The script has been heavily doctored by the Coen brothers and they seem to have applied their rabbinical interest in the law and its anomalies to the film -- there is a speech at the outset in which Hanks' character talks about the notion of an "occurrence" in an insurance policy and draws stark distinctions between himself and his client that is very amusing and bears the marks of the Coen's wit.  But by and large the movie is pretty humorless, an earnest film that plays it straight -- and Spielberg's obviousness, his tendency to preach, is not merely a flaw but also a structural element of the film that gives the picture its power and draws the audience into the complex plot.  Scenes about children being instructed as to how to save themselves in a nuclear holocaust are simply staged and all the more effective and moving for the schematic clarity with which that information is presented.  At one point, Hanks is riding on a Berlin train when he happens to see (implausibly) East German refugees shot down while trying to scale the Wall.  Later, back in Spielberg-land, a sun bleached utopia of neat one-family homes, Hanks who is riding on another elevated train sees some kids trying to scramble over a cyclone fence.  The kids are just fooling around, but Hanks flinches and we understand exactly what he is thinking  -- these sorts of effects are typical of Spielberg's films and, although they give me pause, they account for much of the power of his movies. 


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