Sunday, May 15, 2016

Bridge of Spies

Tom Hanks has appeared in a lot of thoughtful movies.  When I picked up a Blu-ray disc I was expecting a suspense movie and although I knew some of the story it was tense.  More importantly it made me reflect on some of the issues of today.

I first learned of Francis Gary Powers from reading the headlines of the Toronto Telegram when I was a delivery boy.  It was a bit scary that one of our guys had been caught by the evil guys.  There was a concern about nuclear war.

On IMDB there is a lengthy discussion about the accuracy of period components and political slantings.  A lot of it is very interesting, if sometimes confusing.  Like most movie viewers I wasn't there and can appreciate the difficulties of being accurate in every detail, fair to the historical figures and making the movie a money maker.  I believe they made a number of points relevant for today and revealed some historical realities that have been overlooked.

Most of our society was a bit paranoid during the Cold War.  I remember listening to talk about building bomb shelters and the Commie menace.  In the United States Joseph McCarthy was finding Communists in positions of power and influence and he specialized in uncovering ancient brushes with socialism.

Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) was a Soviet spy who passed undetected for 8 years.  We never learn if he passed on any significant information.  He is captured and put on trial.

We are introduced to James Donovan played by Tom Hanks as a sharp insurance lawyer showing how he could beat back claims.  He is soon asked to represent a captured Soviet spy (this happens before the Powers incident) and it soon becomes apparent that the Americans wanted to put on a good show to demonstrate how fair they were.  When Donovan does do a conscientious job he is reviled by government officials and the public who assumed Abel was guilty and deserved capital punishment.

Donovan is successful in avoiding an execution (shortly after the Rosenbergs had been executed for giving information to the Soviets).  He pointed out that if Abel was executed the United States would lose leverage for a possible prisoner exchange.  A strong reaction from vocal people who thought he should be executed.  One is reminded of today's anti-Muslim paranoia.

A complication was an an American student Fred Pryor in East Germany who was captured and one rumour was he would be exchanged for Abel.  However everyone including the East Germans realized he was not really a spy and the Americans had little motive to retrieve him.  At the time East Germany was not recognized by the Americans and they thought this would give them a bargaining chip.  The Soviets and East Germans had different motives.  Donovan decided to include Pryor in the negotiations, although government workers felt it was too risky and too trivial when they really wanted to recover a spy with lots of classified information.

Donovan pointed out that the constitution makes Americans better, and by adhering to the rules gained respect of the world.  He felt Abel was a Russian doing his best for his own country. and that is what Americans expected for their own spies.

In some ways the movie put Americans in a bad light for such things as not pursuing the spirit of the Constitution, wanting execution while the Russians were looking at 10 years hard labour for Francis Gary Powers.  But there was a lot of balancing with the Berlin Wall was started and we were shown would be escapees being shot. At the and of the movie Tom Hanks had the idea to contrast American youngsters climbing over fences without getting shot

On IMDB it was pointed that the movie's portrayal of torture inflicted on Francis Gary Powers was untrue.  He was given tools for a knitting project in reality whereas in the movies it was pointed out that Abel was given painting supplies.

There was some scenes that the returned spies would have their patriotism doubted.  In fact both men were accepted and in the case of Powers continued to work for the military.

Another touch dealt with flash photographers who had a problem with flash bulbs that after being used were very hot.  Instead of putting in pockets as advised they threw them on the floor.  Spielberg  chose to shoot a scene of reporters and others walking through discarded bulbs

Spielberg's father had been involved with a Russian/American exchange and was consulted.

Mark Rylance won an Oscar for best supporting actor. and had some of the best lines  "Do many foreign agents register?" and the much repeated, but timely "Would it make a difference?"

Amy Ryan played Mary Donovan, wife to James.

Music by Thomas Newman, in the background supported words and actions.  I will be adding to my iTunes list.

If you are looking for spine tingling suspense or seat clinging action you will be disappointed.  The movie's dramatic strength is the power of negotiation.  Tom Hanks was very believable portraying Donovan who went against government advice to persuade both the Russians and East Germans to co-operate.  In the post script at the end it was pointed out that John F. Kennedy asked Donovan to negotiate the release of Americans after the Bay of Pigs disaster which he successfully did.  In this day and age there are many who are ready to drop a bomb, send thousands of soldiers to fight at any insult to American integrity.  This movie provided an alternative.

Something I have never done before is to refer my readers to a more detailed review at IMDB--check out the discussion groups.

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