Archive | October, 2015

Feel Good Filmmaking

18 Oct

Last month we discussed Giles Witherell’s book Bridge of Spies and speculated about the then-forthcoming Steven Spielberg film of the same name.  The film deals with the capture of Soviet spy William Fisher (or Rudolph Abel, as he was known that the time), James Donavan, his defense lawyer, and the subsequent prisoner swap of Abel for U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down and captured by the Russians in 1960.

Is the movie any good? Yes, we think that the film is both engaging and entertaining, with an understated performance by Mark Rylance as Abel, the impassive Soviet operative and a strong performance by Tom Hanks as the film’s central character James Donavan.  We thought the scenes set against the backdrop of the construction of the Berlin wall were particularly effective. We also liked the inclusion of the ‘duck and cover’ films shown in US schools during that era. Not only that, but there’s a  brief Kubrick reference in one of the film’s scenes set in Berlin.

Is the film accurate?  Yes, for the most part it is, though the scenes where Powers is deprived of sleep and doused with buckets of cold water contradicts Powers’ statement that he was not tortured.

It is fun to speculate what the picture might have been had the filmmakers decided to make Reino Hayhanen, Abel’s drunken, incompetent assistant a character in the film.  The picture begins with federal agents tailing Abel on the streets of New York and in its subways, culminating with his arrest in a hotel room.  This is an effective sequence, and for the most part it’s factual.  Left out is the fact that the Feds only became aware of Abel’s activities because Hayhanen feared being called back to Moscow and spilled his guts to U.S. authorities.  We think that the contrast between the stoic, no-nonsense Abel and the undisciplined, boozy Hayhanen would have made for a more interesting narrative than that of James Donavan’s legal efforts, but that would have called for a different approach, with a tip of the hat toward the absurd.  Given the film’s screenwriters, who include Joel and Ethan Coen, we’re wondering why this angle was not explored.

James Brown

I feel good (I knew that I would)

One question that occurred to us after we saw the picture is why this story and why now? After all, the events depicted in the film occurred over 50 years ago.  The US is a very different country now and the cold war Soviet Union no longer exists. Steven Spielberg is somewhat of a present day Frank Capra; most, if not all of Spielberg’s films (even Shindler’s List, which deals with the Jewish Holocaust) tend to end on an upbeat note. The picture has an undercurrent of feel-good Americanism, depicting how even a Soviet agent is allowed his day in court with a lawyer to defend him. Could it be that Spielberg in own quiet way is reminding us in this era of Citizens United and unlimited political money that we should hold fast to the principles that undergird our legal system? It is tempting to think so. On the other hand, the film’s screenwriters are Matt Charman, and the aforementioned Coen brothers, the latter two of whom are not known for optimistic endings. Maybe we’re reading more into the timing of the film’s release (a year out from the next presidential electon) than is necessary.  Even without the feel-good factor, the story makes for a pretty good yarn. We’re not usally fans of Spielberg’s work (we think he’s too much of a feel-good director), but what the heck, we liked Bridge of Spies.