“Bridge of Spies”: Doing the right thing, doing the smart thing

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Those going to see Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” last weekend might have thought, based on the trailers, that they were getting a white-knuckle thriller in the vein of “Argo.” All the scenes of men drinking scotch and negotiating were left on the cutting room floor.

But hopefully audiences were able to adjust expectations, slow down their heart rates a little, and appreciate “Bridge of Spies” for the top-notch and engrossing film that it is. Featuring a director, actors (Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance) and screenwriters (playwright Marc Charmin and, on rewrite, Joel & Ethan Coen) working at the top of their game, “Bridge” is immensely enjoyable and something of a companion piece to Spielberg’s last film, “Lincoln.” Both are historical dramas about men doing the right thing against immense obstacles, both because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s the smart thing to do.

Spielberg’s touch asserts itself in a witty opening shot, in which Russian spy Rudolph Abel (Rylance) is using a mirror to paint his self-portrait, likely an allusion to Norman Rockwell’s “Triple Self-Portrait.” Rockwell was the quintessential American, and so it seems is the quiet, normal Abel, who moves through 1957 Brooklyn with his ill-fitting coat and paintbox. But, of course, he’s also a Russian spy.

Spielberg reasserts this with his bravura ten-minute opening sequence, devoid of dialogue or music, in which Abel, shadowed by FBI agents, goes about his day — taking the subway, painting a landscape, and, oh, picking up a secret message in a hollow coin taped to the underside of a park bench. In its evocation of the authentic sights and sounds of 1950s New York, this opening could be a spy sequence as envisioned by “On the Bowery” filmmaker Lionel Rogosin.

From this wordless sequence, we go right into a sequence full of words, as we see insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) negotiate a case. In one exchange, he shows himself to be canny, direct, and above all absolutely sure of what constitutes fair and unfair. I didn’t realize until the closing credits that Joel & Ethan Coen had done a rewrite on the screenplay, but of course their fingerprints are all over this scene in its use of quick, juicy dialogue to establish character.

Donovan is tasked with defending Abel in court, and the first half of “Bridge of Spies” is rather familiar one-man-against-the-system courthouse drama (not unlike Spielberg’s own “Amistad”). When even the judge is openly siding against you, you know you’ve got a losing case, and Donovan becomes a pariah for not just defending Abel, but defending him to the best of his abilities.

Two things stand out of this first half of the film for me. The first is how important the relationship between Donovan and his client Abel are. Donovan is no bleeding-heart, and recognizes Abel as a foe of his country. But he also respects the man as a fellow good soldier who plays by the rules rather than taking the easy way out. These are both practical, honorable men. It helps that Rylance turns in such a sly and winning performance, with Abel concealing a dry wit underneath that hangdog face.

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The second thing is how Donovan plays the case. In front of the Supreme Court, Donovan talks in flowery terms about America and the need for America to put its best foot forward, to play by the rule book, as an example to the rest of the world. He believes this. But in private, especially when he’s arguing sentencing with the judge, Donovan brings forth more practical arguments. Keep Abel alive, and he’ll be good insurance in case an American spy is ever caught by the Soviets. Treat Abel well, and our future captured spy might be treated as well in return.

This is where “Bridge of Spies” has its strongest linkage to “Lincoln,” which focused on President Lincoln’s political efforts to get the 13th amendment abolishing slavery passed into law. It’s the right thing to do for the country, but it’s also the smart thing to do for a divided country. “Lincoln” is less about big speeches and more about the hard work of politics, of calling in favors and twisting arms and using your power strategically to achieve a desired outcome.

And that’s what the second half of “Bridge of Spies” is all about, set in 1960, as Donovan goes to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange of Abel for U2 pilot Gary Powers and American grad student Frederick Pryor. The first half of “Bridge of Spies” has beautifully set up the second. The scenes of Donovan sipping Scotch with Russian and East German officials (each with competing agendas) may not making for thrilling spy cinema. But, just like in “Lincoln,” it does become thrilling to watch Donovan use his powers of negotiations, of understand when to bend and when to stand firm to achieve a desired outcome.

Rylance’s droll presence is missed in this second half, although the screenplay (presumably the Coens) includes some funny touches, such as the fact that these Cold Warriors all have actual colds. (When the cynical CIA agent catches Donovan’s cold, it’s a nifty metaphor for how he’s coming around to Donovan’s way of seeing the world.) And that last scene on the bridge, a pre-dawn stalemate, is suspenseful because the film has laid the groundwork for how shaky this agreement is, how it’s built on human relationships that could go wrong at any time.

Many critics have drawn connections between “Bridge of Spies” and contemporary American politics, whether it be Guantanamo Bay or drone strikes, and whether they reflect American values. I think that’s accurate, but the film is making an even broader point about the way America engages the world.

The Cold War was often described as a chess game between superpowers, and “Bridge” would like to see us get back to that mindset, to start thinking two or three moves ahead, to foresee what consequences might arise from what we do, instead of reacting rashly. To do the right thing, because it’s also often the smart thing. To keep talking to our enemies. And to carry some insurance.

 

 

 

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You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an “E.T.” screening in Madison

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I’ve got nothing against Steven Spielberg’s beloved 1982 family classic “E.T. The Extraterrestrial.” I showed it to my own kids for the first time a few months ago and they loved it (although it may have helped that I shut it off just when E.T. started getting the sniffles.)

But it seems a little odd that Madison audiences have gotten so many chances to see the film in so many different ways over the past few weeks. First, Madison Parks kicked off its “Moonlight Movies” series of outdoor family movies in May with a screening of “E.T.” at Olbrich Beach.

Then, last Monday, the Lakeside Cinema series at the Memorial Union Terrace kicked off its series of outdoor films — all having to do with aliens or outer space — with, you guessed it, “E.T.” (“Spaceballs,” not quite as heartwarming, plays this Monday night.)

And now, when I was at Sundance Cinemas on Sunday to see “Frances Ha” for the second time, I saw that Sundance’s Classics Series is devoted the month of June to the works of Steven Spielberg. And screening on Wednesday, June 19 is, of course, “E.T.” My only question at this point is why the Rooftop Cinema series at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art couldn’t have worked in a “E.T.” screening in its June series — perhaps playing it backward to make it a little more avant-garde.

I guess it’s a testament to “E.T” as a bonafide family classic that generations of moviegoers will turn out for, both older audiences feeling a touch of nostalgia and young families exposing their kids to the saga of Elliot, Gertie and their new houseguest. Still, that’s a lot of Reese’s Pieces.

The Spielberg series, by the way, shapes up like this, hitting four of his biggest films. Not an “Always” in the bunch.

Wednesday, June 5 — “Jaws” (1:30 and 6:45 p.m.) — Less family-friendly than “E.T.,” to be sure, but the film that pretty much invented the concept of the “summer blockbuster” works like gangbusters.

Wednesday, June 12 — “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (showtimes TBA) — Seriously, how great will it be to see Indy’s first outing on the big screen again with an audience?

Wednesday, June 19 — “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” (showtimes TBA) — See above.

Wednesday, June 26 — “Schindler’s List” (showtimes TBA) — Not exactly my idea of big-tub-0f-popcorn summer moviegoing, but a film you must see at least once. I wouldn’t make a plan to go out for drinks afterward, though.