Bridge of Spies (2015)

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RB score: 10/10

Bridge of Spies is an A+ project.  Based on the well known 1962 event with the official exchange of a captured US Air Force pilot with a captured Soviet spy, this is a work so anchored in the brilliant collaboration that is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as James Donovan, the attorney, that the Oscar actually eluded both for the simple reason that both are such masters of their craft,  audiences and Academy alike have taken this mastery for granted.  There is no other explanation.  I’d go so far as to say there’s no other actor who could have done what Hanks did with that role, and no other director who could have matched Spielberg’s execution.

British stage actor Mark Rylance did take home the Oscar for his supporting performance, as Abel, the Russian spy.  Rylance doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time, but his exceptionally skilled and understated portrayal commands your attention whenever he is on screen.

The movie opens in late 50s/early 60s Brooklyn, NY.  The viewer is immediately placed into a scene where Spielberg’s architecture captures all the details flawlessly.  You notice the period cars, the judicious use of color and lighting, the sounds, the people.  A side street, a few cars, and Spielberg takes the audience to the exact time and place where they need to be.  The mesmerizing level of attention to detail is present in every setting throughout the movie.

In general, having any knowledge of the true events will add to audience enjoyment.  It’s true here as well; and this film is also completely watchable on a standalone basis.

There is a scene in the jail, when Donovan is conferring with Abel, and the music of Shostakovich is playing on a portable cassette player.  It’s typical Spielberg-crafted setting,  with no detail left unattended.  For a moment, the beauty of the music fills the room.  Then Abel shuts it off, as he says, musingly:  “A very great artist, Shostakovich.”  Here , even if the viewer is not familiar with the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, or the significance of his works, the scene works as a moment in time where the Russian is acknowledging the artistry of his countryman, perhaps also subtly reminding the audience how the arts and music bridge gaps of understanding among people rather than driving them apart, as do politics and war.    Yet the scene has other, deeper dimensions, that are not overtly explained.  If you have some familiarity with the composer, and some of the debate that exists over the meanings he may or may not have tried to convey to an audience without the Communist party understanding in the same way – if you can muster an appreciation for the desperate tension that was felt by people in that time and space, then this scene hits you with an additional layer of impact. Shostakovich wrote his 5th symphony, (highly recommended listening) in 1937 under some duress and it was received with a standing ovation.

Musically it’s clear there was something going on.

In Bridge of Spies, there is always more going on.  How subtle for Abel to comment, “and they care for you!?” to Jonathan Powers,  referencing the false coin with the cyanide laced pin.  He’s got a point.  Outside of what you can say about the differing systems, when it comes down to an individual level, do either of them care?

For those interested some fascinating backstory on the subplot involving Fred Pryor, the American student who was made part of the capture:   http://michigantoday.umich.edu/the-spy-who-never-was/

My own theory is that Spielberg, not the type to leave important details unattended, was respecting the wishes of the real Fred Pryor by not contacting him.  Still, choosing to live a life away from sensationalism, should not necessarily mean foregoing the courtesy of a phone call, since Spielberg did elect to use his real name.

It’s a great film achievement and not to be missed.  Easily the best picture of the year, regardless of the slings and arrows of Academy voting.  Not only Best Picture, but Director for Spielberg and Best Actor for Tom Hanks.