Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) meets with his client Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent arrested in the U.S. in DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures' dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Caught up with BRIDGE OF SPIES — on the big screen, fortunately. Nice to be able to see 35mm grain dancing about, even if it’s only a digital reproduction.

The really suffered in the cold war: every room was filled with a thin layer of smoke, and the light from the windows blasted in so brightly, you couldn’t see the outside world and had to battle your way through great shafts of smoky light. But there was nothing you could do. It was everywhere. People just had to put up with it.

Spielberg has de-ironized the Coen Bros’ script (a polish of a Matt Charman original), which is mostly a good thing — refreshing to see matters of life and death and national idealism treated earnestly. Where it comes to Tom Hanks’ home life, the Eisenhower family values schtick is a little too cloying and the attempts at humour too sweet to stave off the conservatism. Very pleasing to see Hanks’ somewhat neglected comedy chops getting a workout as he deals with the ridiculousness of the spy world, though. Spielberg, his actors, and his writers are all on the same page here, and it’s a page they know just what to do with.


Was also looking at Oliver Stone’s NIXON and was struck by how Stone’s attempts at symbolism or authorial commentary are usually leaden and obvious (sometimes effective for all that — sheer gusto can help). Spielberg is a deft symbolist. Symbolism is an extremely dangerous weapon, apt to backfire and leave the wielder looking silly — face blackened and clothes tattered like Yosemite Sam after a mishap. Spielberg’s little grace notes, though signposted so everyone can understand their significance, are elegant enough not warp the film’s surrounding fabric, quite simply get away with murder.

In Berlin (or “Berlin, Germany”, as a superimposed title helpfully clarifies), Tom Hanks rides an elevated train crossing the wall from East to West. Glancing from the window he sees a group of three escapees attempting to cross — one has mounted the wall and is attempting to help the second up, while a third boosts her from ground level. Machine gun bullets rake the trio and they fall. All this seen from the sweeping viewpoint of the train, which hurtles relentlessly past. The world will not stop for this little tragedy.


At the film’s end, back in New York, Hanks rides a different L-train. Glancing outside, he sees houses rushing past, and watches a gang of kids playing in their backyards, joyously climbing a fence between two properties. The same onrushing viewpoint swoops past them, crossing their barrier effortlessly and at great speed, leaving them in the distance.

Outrageous, of course: a similar action filmed in an identical way — one scene is at night, the second is daylit, by the way — the similarities point up the intended contrast between an unhappy land and a happier one. Spielberg carries it off, I think, even though you’re totally aware of what he’s up to. It’s still better than the girl in the red coat in SCHINDLER’S LIST. It doesn’t bend the film out of shape and it’s not excessive to its purpose, though like everything in Spielberg (those fuggy rooms!), it can be considered overdone.

The irony with Spielberg is, his smooth camera blocking in dialogue scenes is now a nostalgic hangover from a lost golden age of elegance. He could be invisible if he chose to.


5 Responses to “Thespionage”

  1. What impressed me most about Bridge of Spies (which is Spielberg’s best work in quite some time) is the performance of Mark Rylance. This truly great actor conveys the spy’s rather complex character forcefully and subtly without every getting in the way of a journeyman actor like Hanks.

    I’m surprised at Oscar time nobody brought up Rylance’s performance (to mix a metaphor) in Chereau’s Intimacy in which he gets the most explicit blow-job ever shown in an upscale “art house” movie.

  2. I haven’t seen it or The Brown Bunny so can’t compare their fellatory explicitness.

    Rylance is great value. The screening was followed by a discussion with Vin Arthey, author of a book on the story. He reckoned that the slight Scottish accent Rylance is doing is authentic, though the FBI have never released their recordings of Abel.

  3. Well I’m sure you’ve seen L’Empire des Sens

  4. By the way one of the amusing interviews that the lead (Karl Glusman) in Gaspar Noe’s latest film Love said about his explicit sex scenes was that he was given Intimacy to watch and said to himself that Mark Rylance putting on a condom inspired him to take on his on sexually explicit role!

    Here you go:

    “How did you prepare?
    I watched a lot of movies. Gaspar is constantly watching films and sending me titles. I watched “In the Realm of the Senses.” I watched “Don’t Look Now.” I admire Mark Rylance immensely. He did a movie called “Intimacy,” where you see him put a condom on. I thought if Mr. Rylance could do it, and I want to be like him, I could follow. It was very hard to prepare when you don’t know what you’re going to shoot and you don’t have any dialogue to memorize.”

  5. I think one reason I find Don’t Look Now’s sex scene truthful and effective is aI’m not wondering about how far they went or how real it is. I assume it’s good acting and I don’t worry. “Real” sex on screen rarely seems to have much point to me.

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