I didn't write it up, but last week we watched the recent movie of The Man From UNCLE, a film that can be best be summed as "Okay". I mean, it's fine - functional, inoffensive, but like it's two leading men, hopelessly bland and short of the necesary charm or wit to really make it work. There is a moment in where Hugh Grant turns up and effortlessly outshines everone else and I suddenly realised what was missing. Anyhow, enough of that, because this week we watched another movie set around the Cold War, spies, and even the Berlin Wall, but it really couldn't be more different in nearly every way. After missing it at the cinema, I finally got to see Steven Speilberg's Bridge of Spies.
At the centre of Bridge of Spies is Tom Hanks, turning in another everyman performance as Insurance Lawyer James Donovan, who is asked to represent Soviet Agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) when he is put on trial. Despite a concerted attempt to steal it out from under him by Rylance, this is Hank's film - he's in nearly every scene, it feels - and his idealism and sense of basic decency roots the film even as the murky world of the cold war swirls around him. Rylance too, brings a simple humanity to Abel, and there are too few scenes of the two of them together, which are masterclasses in acting from both men.
The movie itself has two distinct acts. The first is Abel on trial, and the procedural courtroom drama around how he should be treated. There is a very modern subtext here about how the US treats it's enemies, about how the protection of the law extends to those who themselves may not beleive in it. The speech Donovan gives to the Supreme Court, addressed to the camera, feels like it's not, to be honest, talking about Soviet Spies in the 1950s but of issues much, much more contempory. Whilst this is going on, the movie intercuts with a slow build up to Gary Powers fateful U2 flight over the USSR, and his shooting down makes for a nerve-jangling transition in the focus of the film.
For the second act, we're off to Berlin, and the murky, complex world of international relations. With Powers in Soviet hands, Donovan becomes the go-between in a spy exchange, which quickly draws in an innocent American student, and the East German Intelligence Service, along with Russian and US spooks. Away from the moral debates of the first half, Donovan becomes the one "good man", standing on principle against pragmatism and compromise, shot in the wintry and desolate streets of Cold War Berlin.
Bridge of Spies feels like the prestige project it clearly is. The acting is superb, the script (by the Coen Brothers) is outstanding and the Cinematography is perfect. Speilberg pulls this all together into a gripping and thoughtful thriller that I can't help but think may yet appear on my "best of the year" lists. It's just really, really top-notch, and well worth making time for.