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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



A Bridge of Spies, Review: Spyelberg on spy-swapping--one of theirs for two of ours

A Bridge of Spies, Review: Spyelberg on spy-swapping--one of theirs for two of ours

Old school film-making at its charming best is what Steven Spielberg delivers in this potential thriller, that is, instead, crafted as a compelling commentary--on the sordid business of spying, the acceptance of the hard truth that a foreign spy operating in your country is as loyal as your spies indulging in espionage abroad, and the sacred right of every accused in America to a fair trial, be it a US citizen or a foreign national.

Bridge of Spies, a 2010 novel by Giles Whittell, also chronicled by other authors, tells the fascinating story of the cold war between Western Countries and the Communist Bloc. In 1962, with President John F. Kennedy in power, a Brooklyn insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan, is surprisingly recruited by the CIA, sent to East Berlin, and involved in an intense negotiation mission to manage the release a CIA U-2 spy-plane pilot, Francis G. Powers. The pilot was arrested after his plane was shot down by the Soviet Union during a mission. He is to be exchanged for a KGB intelligence officer, Rudolf Abel, alias William Fisher, arrested by the FBI in New York City, and jailed as a Soviet superspy for trying to steal America’s most precious nuclear secrets. Donovan has been defending Abel, much to the scorn of American public and judiciary, all of who want him hanged.

In the meanwhile, another US citizen, a student named Frederic Prior, tries to escape from East Germany, where locals trying to climb over the wall are being shot dead, taking along his Professor and the professor’s daughter. He is intercepted and arrested by East German police (Stasi), and held, suspected of espionage. Donovan, who is sent to East Berlin where the swapping is to take place, makes a manipulative, highly dangerous but cleverly devised plan to get both Powers and Pryor in exchange for Abel, striking a double deal: Abel for Powers, with the USSR, and Abel for Pryor, with East Germany. And the exchanges are to take place on two bridges, dividing the city of Berlin.

Written by British author Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, the script is largely Charman’s work. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, writers-directors in their own right, did revise parts of his original script, but mainly worked on the dialogue, which bears their characteristic touches. Parallel tracks that begin to emerge in the second half of the film run smooth as silk, and not once does the storyline give way to any form of titillation or side-tracking. Only the fact that Donovan’s foresight, about a possible scenario wherein a Soviet spy could be a valuable asset that could be used as bait to make a trade-off, appears contrived. Also, it is hard to believe that neither side used third degree methods to extract information from spies, though the Soviets are shown using mild torture.

From the very first frame, in which Abel is making a self-portrait, and the following scene, in which he is trailed by FBI agents, Spielberg (recent outings: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, Lincoln) shows us the past-master that he is. There’s hardly a redundant shot in the 141 minute-long running time. Moreover, there is hardly any use of animation, CGI or special effects. Footage is justifiably divided between all the actors, and the attitudes and priorities of the characters are divided too. Sticking to an approach that highlights larger issues and human qualities, rather than clap-trap patriotism or spy-thriller trappings, he must have been aware that box-office collections would suffer, but, visibly, he was never swayed, and he must be lauded for that. Also laudable are the impeccable casting and consummately underplayed performances. For a story set in the period 1957-62, he finds and presents actors who just have to belong to the world as it was, then. Spielberg, at 69, shows us just why he still ranks among the best directors around, 47 years after he made his debut.

Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan is such a delight to watch. A persona quite like the James Stewart or Henry Fonda of the 40s and 50s, with the slightest touch of shrewdness, his sincerity and good-humoured determination is over-powering and disarming. British stage actor Mark Rylance (Jerusalem, Boeing-Boeing, Twelfth Night) as the stoic, unflappable Rudolf Abel stuns you with his under-stated study, and even when he mouths his completely predictable line, “Would it help?” you remain rivetted. Amy Ryan (Birdman, Gone Baby Gone) as Mary McKenna, Donovan’s wife, conveys both hr love and fortitude with aplomb. Alan Alda (M*A*S*H, The Aviator) as Thomas Watters, Donovan’s senior partner in the law firm looks every inch the part.

As Francis Gary Powers, Austin Stowell (Whiplash, Public Morals) is quite the dazed pilot who cannot get around to committing suicide, as instructed, before falling in enemy hands. Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others, Homeland) as Wolfgang Vogel, the East German negotiator, Scott Shepherd (And So It Goes, Side Effects) as Donovan’s CIA handler, Hoffman, and Mikhail Gorevoy (Die Another Day) as the Soviet lawyer, are all solid and praiseworthy. A special word for Will Rogers (A Good Marriage), who is cast as Frederic Pryor, the fool-hardy student who thinks he can get past the guards because he is American.

A spy story in which the only action is the firing along the Berlin wall to prevent immigration, where the only gadgets are an improvised coin that conceals secret numbers, where an American reconnaissance pilot is as guilty as a Soviet spy collecting military secrets…not the ideal recipés for an audience brought-up on technical pyrotechnics and 3D. Nothing like the Spielberg of the Indiana Jones series. Very much like the Speilberg of the Schindler's List variety. If the film makes good collections, it would mean that the masses have not yet been totally desensitised by razzle-dazzle. Even if it doesn’t rake in the moolah, it is bound to earn encomiums from the cognoscenti. 

Rating: ****



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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