Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Bridge of Spies: Back to the past

Bridge of Spies is a wonderful demonstration that some people are just surefooted, no matter what they do. Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks just made a two and a half hour movie of middle aged white guys talking. White guys talking about a minor historical event whose outcome is wellknown to just about anyone who’s going to pay to see a movie about it. Anyone interested in the period knows that Abel was swapped for Gary Powers. Anyone not interested is going to skip the movie anyhow. 

It’s just a really solid piece of story telling. If everyone knows how it’s going to end and there’s no real suspense, the only thing which is going to keep people watching is good detail and a good cast. The secret weapon is probably Mark Rylance. Tom Hanks is so consistently reliable these days that it’s almost like he’s not acting any more, just showing up and being an utterly believable nice guy. Hanks is in pretty much every scene, and he’s as solid as he always is, a slighty stubbier and heavier James Stewart for our flakier times. Hanks pretty much drags every movie back in time just by showing up. So it’s all kinds of fun to watch Rylance steal every scene they have together. Rylance underplays every moment, never raising his voice or showing any sign of excitement. It’s a wonderful piece of characterisation; without ever spelling anything out in exposition, Rylance shows us a man who’s endured so much that he’s become utterly unflappable. Again and again, Hanks asks him if he’s worried about some aspect of his plight, and Abel comes back with a simple catchphrase “Would that help?” Poor Tom’s Jim Donovan starts to look more and more oblivious, for all his guile in negotiation.

Above all, it’s an example of one of the great truths of entertainment; if you tell a story well, people don’t care if they’ve heard it before. Tom Hanks is always worth watching, even though he’s never really doing anything surprising. Just as Dr Johnson said that it’s worth watching a bear dance not because it does it well, but simply that it does it at all, there are actors out there who do the same thing again and again in such a charming way that it’s always a pleasure to see it one more time. It helps - as here - when they’re surrounded by other people to play against, but it’s always worth your time.

Of course, it’s Spielberg, so in and among the great human direction there are attempts to grab your attention; he keeps cutting from a character doing something to a different character doing something which seems like a continuation of the same thing, but is completely different - so in one moment, you’re watching Gary Powers being shown all the things in his escape kit, and then the camera pans and suddenly we’re among the evidence of Abel’s spying kit. Most jarringly, Hanks has a moment when his S-bahn train rattles over the Berlin Wall and he witnesses people being gunned down as they try to cross. Later, he’s back in Brooklyn and for another commuter train he watches kids jumping over fences in backyards. It’s heavy handed as hell, not least because the chances of his character even being anywhere in Berlin during a shooting at the Wall were close to zero; there are only a dozen confirmed deaths in the first year, which is explicitly when the film is set; they play pretty fast and loose with the Wall, which went up overnight in August, not in the depths of winter, but Spielberg never saw a symbol he wouldn’t squeeze till it cracked.

Afterwards, I found myself wondering whether Spielberg was even thinking about parallels with today; the Cold War is expressly described as a conflict of two cultures convinced that they’re at risk of imminent destruction at the hands of the other culture. Hanks gets a bunch of speeches where he explains that if American wants to win this war, it has to show itself to be better and more decent than its foes. The depiction of both sides is nuanced; while the US comes out looking better than the Soviet side, there’s an edge of cynicism and amorality to much of the US establishment, while the main Soviet negotiator is a perfect foil for Hanks, another good natured guy making the best of a tricky job where he knows he can’t quite tell the truth but that he can’t get away with a lie either. I couldn’t decide whether this was nostalgia for a shadowy war which now looks better compared to today’s shadowy war, or a quiet call to conduct the new wars more decently. It’s probably too much to hope that anyone in power is going to see that angle.

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