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"The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance
of things, but their inner significance." ~ Aristotle

Cinema Signal: And, now, for the adults: a superbly told spy thriller fo the cold war. Green light! MOBILE version |
. "Bridge of Spies"

When two filmmaking pros embark on a major character piece of 2015, it's no surprise that the result would be an exquisitely crafted drama -- in this case adapted from Giles Whittell's non-fiction espionage thriller about an actual event in cold war history. "Bridge of Spies," the movie, is the product of adult, seamless storytelling that locks you in your seat for its full length and leaves you wanting more.

Forgive me for giving most of the credit to director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Hanks because if others did some of the work: photography, production design, costumes, music, casting, etc., it was surely inspired by these top guys.

In the vein of "Argo," screenwriters Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen have turned in a solid script about espionage. It's 1957 and a Russian mole has been caught, jailed, and is facing trial. Not that there's any doubt about his culpability or insufficient evidence, but that's our system. Innocent until proven guilty. And, for that, he needs a defense lawyer. But, who would want to publicly defend a spy at a time when the cold war is icing up?

The officials responsible for such things know the man to recruit. That would be the unimpeachable insurance attorney James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a straight-arrow of the legal profession. After wrestling with how the job will tear him away from his family, take him out of his comfort zone and dump him into a situation for which he has no training, he's advised that it's not a voluntary assignment. So he does what any attorney would... he pays a visit to his client. At the jail.

And his life will never be the same.

Of course, you could say the same for Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance, "The Gunman"), the UK-born KGB superspy (actually one William Fisher, perhaps movie-named to remind us of the evil Rudolph Hess, Hitler's Deputy Fuhrer who, as if to emulate his leader's early years painting on canvas, spent his prison years in the same activity).

We see Abel first in his minimal studio apartment, a colorless man, small of stature, studying himself in a mirror while taking a break from painting a self portrait. The painting contains more color than anything in his drab surroundings, his Brooklyn "safe house." This is a man who wants to be unnoticed, a grey wreath slipping around in grey shadows in order to obtain his host nation's most sensitive nuclear secrets.

Abel's effectiveness is shown in one bit of successful espionage in which he obtains a coin. When split apart it reveals a small slip of paper that is far more critical than it's size would indicate. A coin split apart also serves as a symbol of two men who fit together in a strange and unique way.

Donovan knows little of the kind of man who would be a spy, let alone the singular person he meets for the first time. What he does pick up on is Abel's dry acceptance of his circumstances and having Donovan as the man who leads him through the American system of justice. Donovan meets a steely pragmatist with a tendency to say as little as possible. At one point, the lawyer, sensing no apparent emotional expression coming from his client, asks if he's not worried about the outcome of the trial being his execution.

"Would it help?" the spy replies.

Stunning for it's succinctness and how it fits a man who uses the simplest logic as a tool to maintain a cold superiority it's in perfect consistence with his character, a line that rivets us to this guy. He not only steals the scene over and over again -- it's a good bet Rylance will be sitting in one of the first two rows at the 2015 Oscars as a nominee for Best Supporting Actor, having crafted one of the freshest interpretations of the year. Think of the impression little-known to American audiences Cristoph Waltz made in Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds."

Meanwhile, Hanks must be appreciated for building a character to perfectly appreciate and fit his character's exactitude against Abel's unfailing terseness; a man the likes of which he never could imagine but whom, curiously, he can understand and value. A man whose life is worth saving. But, can the lawyer, for all his fastidious thoroughness and sincerity, whose face in the press becomes an icon of infamy to his fellow subway travelers, pull that off?

Despite the waves of hatred washing over him, Donovan's genius is to formulate an argument against executing the Russian spy for the value he may be to U.S. interests in yet unforeseen developments in the cold war. For him to have anticipated such a possibility impressively demonstrates the lessons this insurance lawyer has learned in the thorny geo-political arena of the time.

Other events which may not seem relevant to Donovan's duties for his spy, will intersect and widen them. The U.S. has built a fleet of advanced spy planes, named U-2s, which can fly at greater altitudes than ever before (70,000 ft.) and employ camera imaging at greater than ever resolution. The design is to remain undetected by the Soviets as long as possible while recording and studying their military installations. Thinking 70k feet elevation enough to exceed surface-to-air missiles, the world is shocked when a U-2 is shot down, with pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) aboard. The Russians haven't been standing still in the development of weapons, either. Powers ejects but declines to crush the poison pill in his mouth as ordered in such an event, and is captured.

Meanwhile, Spielberg shifts to East Germany as an American student (Will Pryor) is captured trying to get his girlfriend out while the Berlin Wall is being built to keep East Germans in. Two Americans in Russian prisons. One Russian spy in our prison. Donovan's prescience in his argument to keep his man alive is illuminated as negotiations begin. And, who is entrusted with a task so fraught with unpredictability and a first cold war prisoner exchange? Donovan -- now versed in the deceptive undercurrents of Soviet-American gamesmanship, of course.

While the unique historical episode that played out in early 1962 might be a little long in the telling, the taut suspense and the fascinating relationship at its center retains an exquisite level of tension. Hanks and Rylance produce a chemistry that makes history boil with intrigue and lifts the story off the page.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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