Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Game Of Human Chess

Reel To Reel: Bridge Of Spies

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: A couple of f-bombs and Cold War-related violence

A co-worker of mine once said public defenders were a garbage chute to prison. In many cases, he's right. They are assigned a thankless task of representing various levels of scum, many of them guilty as sin, with only the time or resources to present a token defense or at least engineer a plea deal. But every so often, a huge case comes along requiring solid litigation chops. At the very least, the system needs a defender who will keep a guilty verdict from being tossed on appeal due to ineffective counsel.

It's that scenario which thrusts insurance attorney James Donovan (Hanks) into an espionage case in 1957 Cold War America. His legal superiors throw him the case of Rudolf Abel (Rylance), a Soviet Spy posing as a quiet artist in New York City. Hanks has little practical experience in criminal trials; he makes a living negotiating settlements and explaining to courts and clients why a car hitting a group of five people is one liability claim, not five. He does it with cool and logical finesse, boiling down obtuse legal principles into simple truths. Hanks is no garbage-chute lawyer. Although initially unsure about his ability, Donovan locks on to a basic principle: Abel is innocent until proven guilty, and if our Constitution means anything, it has to work for both the innocent and the guilty, especially to show the world -- especially the Soviets -- that the American legal system is not a show-trial machine.

Abel is no caricature of a foreign agent. The grandfatherly figure speaks of loss and hardship, not Communist propaganda. He and Donovan establish a mutual respect, adding to the lawyer's determination against a system determined to cut corners to put him away. Inevitably, it happens, but Donovan engineers a sentence he believes will hold value in the long run: prison versus the electric chair. The shrewdness of that sentence comes into play when the Soviets capture U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). The feds call Donovan into service once more to engineer the deal of a lifetime that will swap Powers for Abel.

Hanks' performance will remind many of you of Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird. Indeed, according to director Steven Spielberg, Peck was once attached to play Donovan when MGM considered making this story into a movie in the 1960's. (The studio ultimately abandoned the project due to Cold War politics.) Yet Hanks' Donovan is more of a negotiator than a litigator, someone who can see every move and countermove and carefully select the right words. As we see several times, that skill enables Donovan to survive complication after complication when he finds out the deal he's negotiating comes with wrinkles.

Bridge Of Spies gets props for staying a Cold War thriller and not trying to become a back-door swipe at U.S. policies in the War on Terror. Hanks' rhetoric could've easily steered it that way, but Spielberg isn't an activist director, and he knows when to pull up. The real story is the submerging of a working-class lawyer into a thick world of espionage with tripwires and trapdoors all around. Curiously, Joel and Ethan Coen did a rewrite of the original screenplay by Matt Charman, one of the few projects they have worked on without either directing or producing.

And once again, we see Tom Hanks in another comfortably-fitting role, much more so than the last time I saw him as Walt Disney in last year's Saving Mr. Banks. We've come to depend on him to deliver hero after to hero. How much more can he give us?

No comments: