Oscar Weekend continues in Mannionville. Posted February 27, 2016.
Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan in Bridge of Spies.
Of course I knew the story going in. Thought I did, anyway. May, 1960. Height of the Cold War. American U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers shot down on a mission over the Soviet Union. Tried and convicted of espionage. Spent two years in Soviet prison before being swapped for a Russian spy.
I didn’t know the swap included another American, a grad student named Frederic Pryor the East Germans had accused of espionage and were holding without charging him in East Berlin. I didn’t know much about the American lawyer who negotiated the swap, James B. Donovan, or about the Soviet spy, a KGB officer called Vilyam Fisher but known as Rudolf Abel. Learning about them and their parts in the story would have made Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies enough of welcome history lesson for me to make the movie worth seeing. But it turns out there’s more to the story than I knew. Much more. So much more I was convinced while I was watching it that much of that much of that much more was made up by Spielberg and his screenwriters Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen. And Donovan and Abel seemed too good to be true.
Turns out they really were too good to be true. At least, Donovan was. Couldn’t find out as much about Abel when I looked them both up when I got home, but he does seem to have been one of those people whose real life and character are more dramatic and interesting than fiction.
And, except for taking a little poetic license here and there, Spielberg and Charman and the Coens weren’t making stuff up to make the story more dramatic. They were leaving stuff out, probably for reasons of time and money. But possibly to keep from overwhelming the audience with the implausibility of it all.
But given that Bridge of Spies is historically inaccurate mainly in its not including enough history, I wondered why it didn’t look historically accurate. It looked like a movie trying to look historically accurate.
More to to the point, it looked like a movie.
I should say it looked like the movies.
Instead of looking like a realistic recreation of the period---Cold War America and Europe in the late 1950s and early 1960s---it looked like spy movies made in Hollywood in the late 1940s, and early 1950s, formalized, mannered, perfectly composed, somehow reminiscent of black and white even though it’s in color and the palette is fairly bright and extensive, and theatrical---that is you can imagine many of the scenes taking place on a stage in a play. It’s realistic but it’s the realism of the sound stage and the workshop from back in the days before cgi when if a scene called for rain, you had to make it rain on the set and if it took place on a city street with period storefronts, you had to build the city or at least a block of it. Even scenes shot on location look as though they were shot in a studio. And Spielberg makes no attempt to hide it. Just the opposite. It’s as if he wants us to notice and is deliberately calling attention to the artifice.
There is in fact a scene in which Tom Hanks as Jim Donovan attempts to elude some shadowy figures following him that takes place at night in the rain on a city street that for all I know was shot at night in the rain on a real city street but looks like it could have been filmed on a studio backlot circa 1940. The night-time darkness is both too dark and too light and so conveniently shadowed here and neon-lit there that you think it has to be an effect of clever lighting and black backdrops. The drenching rain is too drenching and looks like it’s coming out of sprinklers overhead. And the storefronts, doors, and windows along the street display a suspicious lack of activity that suggests that if you could look through them you’d see nothing much going on behind them because there’s nothing actually behind them but struts and scaffolding.
The climactic scene on the Glienicke Bridge connecting East and West Germany is lit and shot in such a way that at times the bridge is more suggested than seen, just as it might be in a movie shot on a soundstage or in a play.
What’s more, there’s something about the way Hanks’ part is written and the way he plays him that makes it easy to imagine Donovan as played by Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, or even Cary Grant. And since Fonda, Stewart, Peck, and Grant all worked for him on some of his best pictures, it’s easy to imagine Bridge of Spies directed by mid-career, pre-Technicolor Hitchcock.
For that matter---and maybe I’m stretching now---although her part isn’t as important or as developed as it would have been had Bridge of Spies been a Hitchcock film, Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife has something about her of the type of golden blonde Hitchcock liked just a little too much, and I could see the part expanded and played by Joan Fontaine or Eva Marie Saint.
Not by Grace Kelly, though.
Hitchcock would never have cast her as a wife and mother.
The point is I was aware that I was watching a movie and felt as if I was meant to be aware, almost in a meta- way, which is not like Spielberg.
At first I thought this might be simply due to practicality. Spielberg knew going in he would have to re-create East Berlin in 1962 or at least a good sized chunk of it and whatever way he went about it, either by building expensive sets or using cgi, the rest of the movie would have to look like what he did with that. There may be some cgi but most of the scenes in Berlin take place on sets or on locations that have been so decorated and disguised they might has well be sets. Which explains why street scenes in New York City and interiors in both cities are allowed to look artificial. I thought that letting us notice might even have been Spielberg apologizing for his not being able to make a more realistic-looking movie, although apologizing for anything he puts on screen isn’t any more like Spielberg than going meta-.
Then I remembered how much Spielberg loves movies, particularly those movies, and I thought he might have been doing it for the sheer fun of it. Tell him one of his movies looks like one of those movies and he’d probably take it as a high compliment.
I don’t remember at what point in the movie it dawned on me that reason Bridge of Spies looks like a movie might have been thematic.
There are times when real life is like a movie and even more like a movie than most movies, and this episode in history was one of those times.
Before taking this further, I need to say something about Tom Hanks.
The movie doesn’t exist without him.
One of Hanks’ upcoming films is the Clint Eastwood-directed Sully in which he stars as Chesley Sullenberger, the airline pilot who back in January of 2009 saved the lives of all 155 of his passengers by landing his disabled plane in the Hudson River. In taking on the role of a pilot, Hanks is continuing what seems to be a career-long plan to play every type of person a little kid might dream of growing up to be.
He’s been a soldier, a ship’s captain, an astronaut, a lawyer, a cowboy, a train engineer, various types of cop---police detective, FBI agent, prison guard---a baseball player---well, a baseball manager who had been a player, but a Hall of Famer!---a gangster, a doctor, a stand-up comic, and a famous animated cartoonist and movie producer. He hasn’t played a President yet---and that needs to be fixed quick, with someone casting him as Nixon before he's too old---but he has played a Congressman. He hasn't been a scientist or a priest, a minister, or a rabbi. Technically, he's played a teacher but I don't count it because we don't see him in the classroom. And he hasn't played a spy. I guess a case could be made that in Bridge of Spies he’s finally playing one, an amateur one, at any rate, but Donovan’s another lawyer and not only acts and thinks like one, his lawyerliness is crucial to his success in bringing Powers and the grad student Frederic Pryor home. Which brings me to something Hanks has always been excellent at playing. Intelligent.
I don’t mean he’s simply good at playing smart guys. He’s good at playing guys who are smart in the particular, focused, and knowledgeable ways that make them good at their jobs. You believe he could captain a freighter, manage a baseball team to the brink of a championship, and track down and capture the most brilliant and elusive of con artists. It’s this ability to play not a simply personality but a professional at work that distinguishes his characters from each other and from Tom Hanks, even though they all tend to look and sound exactly like Tom Hanks.
As Jim Donovan he lawyers his way through Bridge of Spies, outmaneuvering and outwitting the professional spies and diplomats on both sides because by training and practice and through a combination of talent, temperament, intelligence, and quickness of wit, he’s skilled at anticipating opponents’ arguments before they’ve even thought of them themselves and also because, again by training and practice and temperament, he’s persistent---when something doesn’t work, he takes a step back, reconsiders, and comes back at the problem from another direction. And as intellectual and emotionally detached as this makes Donovan sound---and Hanks plays him this way---Hanks makes clear that Donovan is also warm-hearted and committed, with his feelings totally engaged on his clients’ behalf.
Hanks puts Donovan’s lawyerly intelligence into his voice, as well. It’s there in the intonations, inflections, and modulations that at times gives a theatricality to things Donovan says, which is in keeping with his being a good lawyer since most good lawyers are not only good public speakers, they’re good actors as well. Donovan is the type of actor who deliberately and cunningly underplays his parts but there’s no doubt he plays parts. It’s just very hard to catch him at.
Like Hanks himself
Hanks is as good as Tom Hanks can be, and like I said he makes the movie. Nothing surprising in that. Mark Rylance, however, was a revelation to me.
I’d never seen Rylance before and had only known of him by his reputation as a great stage actor. But there’s nothing stage actorish about his performance. He does not mouth it nor saw the air too much with his hands. In fact throughout the movie Abel seems to be suffering from a perpetual cold and there’s a hoarseness to his voice that suggests it’s a strain for him to raise it above a whisper, and while a great deal of Rylance’s brilliance of characterization goes into what he has Abel do with his hands, his most elaborate movements are the careful lighting of a cigarette, the careful sketching of a face on a piece of paper---Abel is an artist when he’s not busy spying---and the wiping of a paint brush. As for the torrents, tempers, and whirlwinds of his passions. whatever they are, he keeps them almost entirely hidden. His face is always a perfect mask of impassivity and resignation. Rylance gives one of the deadest-panned of deadpan performances, only his eyes giving anything away and that’s not much. They’re permanently set in a hurt child’s wide-open expression of surprised sadness.
And Rylance makes clear that his performance is Abel performing. The mask he puts on is Abel’s devising. Like Donovan, he’s an actor. But his acting isn’t just a key to his success as a spy. It’s the reason for his survival.
Hanks and Rylance make a good team, as a pair of fine actors playing off each other, as characters learning to like and depend on each other, and as a visual effect---the big, teddy bearish Hanks contrasting with the puppet-like delicateness of Rylance. And Rylance’s extreme underplaying makes Hank’s underplaying look almost histrionic. It’s rare when a character played by Hanks as the overly-emotional one. But that lets us see that as low-key and detached as Donovan manages to appear to be, his feelings are deeply engaged.
“Aren’t you worried?” Donovan asks Abel in a typical exchange that’s repeated with minor variations several times throughout.
And Abel replies, the mask firmly in place, “Would it help?”
And it doesn’t help.
Abel’s mask gets us back to the movie’s movie-ness.
As I was saying, I think it’s thematic.
And it’s not just that this particular episode in the Cold War when real life was like a movie. The Cold War itself was to a great degree fought through movie-like fictions and by real people and through them whole nations acting out roles they’d assigned themselves in attempts at deceiving their enemies and their own civilian populations.
Donovan is put in the predicaments he’s in because the United States government has cast him in a role. He’s playing the part of a defense attorney in a the government’s fiction that Abel’s being given a fair trial because that’s the kind of nation we are.
As CIA Director Allen Dulles says to Donovan when he asks him to negotiate the swap, Abel for Powers, "A lot of fiction going on."
But Donovan’s then able to do what he does because his principles won’t let him play the part as written or exit the scene when he’s supposed to. He re-writes the script as he goes, without telling any of his fellow players that that’s what he’s doing, and he either re-writes their parts in the process and incorporates them into his own plot in a way that they are trapped by their own play-acting.
A judge who prides himself on being tough but fair-minded is manipulated into acting with tough-minded fairness. A vain and ridiculously self-important politician is made to feel he is as important as he thinks he is and as a result makes a decision he’s bound to regret when he’s asked to explain it to his Soviet masters. And an American spy is checkmated into behaving like an American, his return to principle symbolized by Donovan’s forcing him to have the American breakfast at a hotel restaurant, a Spielberg-ian touch that marks Donovan as a stand-in for a movie director. Like a good director, he’s adept at using other people to tell the story he wants to tell.
Maybe I’m reaching with that one.
But it does mark Donovan as a lawyer. Lawyers are also adept at using people to tell the stories they want to tell.
One last thought and I’m done.
Hanks is great at playing smart but he’s great at playing other qualities too.
At one point, Donovan returns home completely worn out from his latest legal adventure. He staggers upstairs, collapses onto the bed, and falls asleep immediately.
Acting schools should have their students study Hanks sleeping,
I swear I’ve never seen anyone on screen looks so realistically dead to the world.
Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen. Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Scott Shepherd, Dakin Matthews, Austin Stowell, Will Rogers, Michael Gaston, Mikhail Gorevoy, and Sebastian Koch. Rated PG-13. Available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Revised at the suggestion of commenters sabretom and Ed Crotty. See below.