Sunday, November 15, 2015

THE GREAT COMMUNICATOR: a review of "Bridge Of Spies"

Screenplay Written by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Directed by Steven Spielberg
*** (three stars)

What a violent period of time the 21st century has turned out to be.

It seems fitting that I have seen Director Steven Spielberg's political drama "Bridge Of Spies," his first new film in three years, just a mere two days after the massacre in Paris and three days after the bombings in Beirut. Beyond those massive horrific events, we are indeed caught in a time where gun violence and acts of terrorism are functioning at crisis points. Additionally, we are also dealing with the constant barrage of racial, sexual and verbal violence inflicted upon each other through the landscapes of the streets, social media to the so-called debate stages for the legion of Presidential candidates all jockeying for power, making me question if there really is anyone who is truly altruistic in their quest.

What have we become? Certainly, we are all afraid to varying degrees but when that state of fear is compounded by the relentless images and stories depicted through the media and the rancorous political discourse of our leaders, I cannot help but to harbor the even greater fear that we are closely reaching a point of no return, where compassion is rejected in favor of vengeance, recrimination and self-righteous. To quote the iconic Stevie Wonder, "love's in need of love today."

I suppose these sentiments are what permeated my thoughts as I viewed Spielberg's latest film as he presented a world from our recent past that was truly the definition of "precarious" due to political and of course, nuclear tensions between the United States and Russia and yet filtered that world through this individualistic story fully depicting what could actually be accomplished is we did just listen to each other. Yes, there are times were we need to fight. But, possibly, Spielberg may be suggesting, the times for understanding are more prevalent than we just may realize.

"Bridge Of Spies," set at the height of the Cold War in 1957, stars Tom Hanks as Brooklyn insurance settlement attorney Jim Donovan, a man as devoted to the justice and fairness inherent within the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution as he is to his wife Mary McKenna Donovan (Amy Ryan) and their three children.

Inexplicably, Donovan is asked by his partners to represent suspected Soviet KGB spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance in a performance of sharp subtlety and shading), to ensure he receives a fair trial solely for the purpose of the Soviet Union to not be able to utilize Abel's incarceration as propaganda. While Donovan takes his assignment with the utmost seriousness and sincerity, even all the way to seeking an appeal for Abel through the United States Supreme Court, his partners, his firm and even his family grow increasingly disgruntled with Donovan's actions. Even the court of public opinion turns upon Donovan, who soon begins to receive hate mail and death threats for treating Abel with the same dignity as he would an American citizen.

Meanwhile, pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), embarked upon a U-2 spy plane mission over the Soviet Union, is shot down, captured, interrogated and convicted. In Germany, as the Berlin Wall is being erected, American Economics  graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested as a spy as he attempts to bring his girlfriend back into West Berlin.

Utilizing a backchannel message, the U.S.S.R. contacts Donovan and proposes an exchange; Powers for Abel. Donovan then goes one further and suggests a 2 for 1 exchange, both Powers and Pryor for Abel. And thus, family man and insurance attorney Jim Donovan is thrust into the middle of negotiations between the CIA, the U.S.S.R. and the East German government, all the while attempting to ensure success through diplomacy over destruction.

Steven Spielberg's "Bridge Of Spies," while functioning an an espionage thriller and containing some of the hallmarks and visual aesthetics of film noir (as beautifully lensed by longtime collaborator Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski), has delivered a sobering and more deliberately paced cerebral affair, much in line with some of his past films including "Amistad" (1997), aspects of "Munich" (2005) and most definitely, "Lincoln" (2012).

Just as how Spielberg provided the historical and thematic links to both Presidents Lincoln and Obama at the dawn of their respective second terms in office, "Bridge Of Spies" certainly utilizes the concepts of diplomatic discourse and overall human dignity as they function within intense political situations, all the while holding a mirror of the past up to ourselves in the present. Tom Hanks, purposefully operating in full Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart mode, has made for a perfect conduit of Spielberg's vision. Hanks delivers a commanding performance of deep, steadfast integrity. While for some, he may be a bit of a Boy Scout due to his unshakable idealism, I found his performance and this representation of this real world figure to be endearing and undeniably refreshing, especially as I am bombarded by the endless morass of vitriol that has encapsulated our present day political dialogue.

I found it fascinating how Donovan was able to maintain his sense of resolve with preserving the human dignity of every individual he came in contact with, regardless of the obstacles. Yet, what impressed me most was his ability to ultimately ingratiate himself in essentially any situation and emerge unscathed simply though the act of listening and displaying a non-judgmental stance, regardless of whom he was speaking and communicating with, whether dignitaries, agents, underlings or even a band of threatening East German youths who accost Donovan during one tense sequence.

In many ways, "Bridge Of Spies" fits perfectly within one of Spielberg's ever present themes: the tales of an ordinary individual placed within an extraordinary situation. Even so, I wish to stress that "Bridge Of Spies" and Hanks' role in the film, do not serve as some sort of reprisal of Robert Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump" (1994), for this film is never presented as fable or fantasy. Quite the contrary, it is a film, while celebrating a certain idealism and platitudes about our common humanity which should be upheld and defended, that serves as a pointed lament for all that we have forgotten in our trigger happy-bombs away rhetoric.

Yes, in several scenes Donovan receives much retaliation from members within his own community for committing the so-called audacity of treating Abel respectfully and fighting for his day in court as he would perform for any of them. Certainly, the film is designed for us to find the connections inside of those scenes with the same and even uglier language that is currently being hurled against the entirety of the Muslim community since September 11, 2001, the increased racist language and violence against African-Americans ever since President Obama's election as well as the horrific language launched again the Hispanic community repeatedly spoken by a certain reality television star now as a Presidential front runner. Could any of you, dear readers, just imagine if a similar situation occurred, what would happen and how it would be handled if a figure from today's world were at the helm? Terrifying isn't it? When one does not profess to have any sense of dignity towards those different then themselves, how can there possibly be any sense of understanding, especially upon the world's political stage? "Bridge Of Spies" provides a much needed alternative to the vitriolic energies on display in 2015.      

"Every person matters," proclaims Donovan at one point during "Bridge Of Spies," and I think if there was any moment that has lingered for me, during the remainder of the film and even afterwards, it is that one because I fear that we, as a human race, have forgotten that conceit. There is an inherent dignity to us all, regardless of which part of the world we may reside or what ethnicity we happen to be. "Bridge Of Spies," is a good not great but definitely thought provoking film that illustrates just how much can be attained when even one person just takes the opportunity to place himself/herself aside in favor of a higher sense of authority, the kind of which that can hopefully alleviate another's struggles and baggage and benefit society as a whole.

Yet, if we close our ears and hearts to each other, our collective downfall is imminent. The choice is ours.

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