Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bridge of Spies [2015]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (B. Tallerico) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review  

Bridge of Spies [2015] (directed by Steven Spielberg [Wikip] [IMDb], screenplay by Matt Chapman [IMDb] and Ethan and Joel Coen [wikip] [IMDb [1] [2]) may not set out to tell the best known of Cold War stories, but it certainly tells it well as a poignant multi-leveled parable with obvious resonances with today.

The film's also a reminder that spies need not be flashy (Ian Fleming's James Bond), tough (Liam Neeson's Bryan Mills) or even super-smart (Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan).  An excellent spy can simply be "all but invisible."

So it was then with Rudolf Abel (played in the film by Mark Rylance).  Born in 1903 in England of anti-Czarist Russian emigré parents, he returned to Soviet Russia after the Revolution in 1920 bearing an invaluable set of skills -- he knew the customs of Britain / the West and spoke perfect English.  So it was perhaps inevitable that he would be recruited into the Soviet spy services (in their various incarnations).  And shortly after WW II, he was sent with a mundane British / American cover as a quite innocuous small time "photographer / artist" to Brooklyn, NY to _manage_ the Soviet nuclear spy ring in the U.S. that extended from the Soviet diplomatic missions in Washington and New York to LOS ALAMOS (the Rosenbergs, etc).  The small time "photographer / artist" cover allowed him to hold odd hours and even leave New York for fairly extended periods of time without arousing suspicion.  In terms of income, his Brooklyn living quarters were very modest (very simple / "bohemian"...), and he lived in good part on a small stipend that he received from the Soviet government.  This was a guy who honestly _no one would notice_ unless _told_ by someone to _notice him_.

Yet, eventually the FBI was informed to take note of him, and so in the beginning sequence of the film here, we're shown how this utterly innocuous man was apprehended as a "Master Spy" / "ring leader."

Great, we got him.  What now?  This was the 1950s.  The Rosenbergs (American citizens) were given the chair for their betraying the country and _giving the Soviets_ America's Manhattan Project earned nuclear secrets (putting the U.S. into previously unfathomable danger of nuclear annihilation) .

Rudolf Abel however was different.  He _wasn't_ an American citizen.  Yes, he was a spy, but he was a SOVIET spy, who DIDN'T betray his country.  Instead, as a _kind of soldier_ he did what _his country_ had sent him to do ... to spy on us.  As such, he was afforded some pragmatic sympathy by this country, or at least by our nation's "powers that be."

First, he was given a proper trial with a quite reasonably good defense.  The defense lawyer that he was given was James B. Donovan (played magnificently in the film by Tom Hanks).  Not only was Donovan an A-list lawyer, the Soviets would have known him as he served as part of the U.S. Prosecuting team at Nuremburg.

Of course, Abel was found guilty.  After all, he was a spy.  However, pointedly he was _not_ given the chair (as the Rosenbergs had).   Again, the U.S. government _chose_ to make a distinction between him and the Rosenbergs (according to the film at Donovan's own suggestion).  The Rosenbergs were traitors, while Abel was arguably "a soldier" and hence the U.S. government chose to look at him as a kind of "a prisoner or war" / "an insurance policy" to keep in hand in case an American spy would someday be captured by the Soviets.

That proved to be a very smart move as only a few years later U.S. U-2 pilot Gary Powers (played in the film by Austin Stowell) was shot down over the Soviet Union and subsequently captured.

This set up then the rest of the story portrayed in the film, where James B. Donovan was sent by the U.S. government "as a private citizen" to Berlin (even as the world was reeling from the recent construction by the Soviets / East Germans of the Berlin Wall) to negotiate a prisoner swap of Abel for Powers.  Of course no one trusted each other and even the relatively "lowly" East German Government proved to have its own agenda.  But Donovan who had experience in not just trial law, but commercial (insurance) law proved to be able to "get the job done" and indeed more. 

It all proved to be one fascinating story, and one can remind us of the value of having some pragmatism as we seek to confront / manage the various foreign policy challenges of our day.

A VERY GOOD FILM, made by ARGUABLY AMERICA'S HOLLYWOOD "A-TEAM" (Spielberg, the Coen Brothers and Tom Hanks...) and would probably offer a very interesting message for those who would have "eyes to see and ears to hear ..."

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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1 comment:

  1. I can't wait to see this. I still can't believe it was written by the Coens. Great review.