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 Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies

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Donald McKinney
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PostSubject: Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies   Sun Dec 20, 2015 3:48 am

Bridge of Spies started as an original screenplay by British playwright Matt Charman (Suite Française (2014), BBC's Our Zoo)). The genesis of the project was when Charman read Robert Dallek's 2001 book An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. In the book, was a footnote regarding an insurance lawyer called James B. Donovan, who just happened to have negotiated an historic exchange in Berlin between a Soviet spy and a captured American spy pilot. Charman saw instant potential in the story, and researched more about Donovan and the exchange he helped negotiate, meeting with Donovan's son and Charman put together a screenplay. He met with several studios, then DreamWorks came calling, in particular, Steven Spielberg, who saw a film and wanted to direct. The screenplay, then called St. James Place, was given a rewrite by Joel and Ethan Coen, who added their inimitable dialogue to some scenes. Spielberg had been shuffling his heels on what to direct after the success of Lincoln (2012), and a lot of projects came and went. He had been attached to do an adaptation of Daniel H. Wilson's 2011 novel Robopocalypse, but that was postponed due to script issues. Spielberg was also attached to Montezuma, from a 50 year old screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. Again, nothing came of that. Spielberg was briefly attached to American Sniper, but he passed and Clint Eastwood ran with it. But, there was something intimate and exciting about this story, and in other hands, it could have been a boring courtroom drama. Bridge of Spies is buoyed by Spielberg's confident direction, which he weaves an engaging and powerful character piece, with some brilliant performances in it.. It seems quite relevant now, with East-West relations at an all time low for years. Bridge of Spies is a different kind of spy film, it shows Spielberg is still a master director and can take on any material and make it work.

It begins in 1957, in Brooklyn Heights, New York. When Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested by the FBI for being a Soviet Spy. To defend him in court, is insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who hasn't had much experience with this, but Abel accepts Donovan as his lawyer. It's agreed that Abel has a fair trial, otherwise the Soviet's would use it as propaganda against the U.S. Even though Abel is found guilty of being a spy, he's spared the death sentence, as Abel might be used as a bargaining chip for any future skirmishes with the U.S.S.R., this comes at a cost though, as Donovan's home is shot at, and he gets hate mail, and he finds himself being followed by strange men after work. Meanwhile, pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is recruited for a CIA mission to take photos over Soviet Russia in a U-2 spy plane. But, he's shot down and captured, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Also captured is American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who just happened to be in East Berlin as the wall was going up, and was arrested for being a spy, (he wasn't). Donovan gets a letter for Abel from Abel's 'family' in East Berlin, proposing a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers. Donovan travels to East Berlin to begin negotiations, but hears about Pryor's capture, and wants a 2 for 1 exchange. Powers and Pryor for Abel, but both the Russian and East German governments aren't happy at this proposal. Before Donovan left for Berlin, he met with CIA director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie), who agreed to try and get Pryor too, as long as it didn't jeopardise the Abel-Powers exchange. Meanwhile, Donovan is finding negotiating with the U.S.S.R. and the East German government infuriating and near impossible as neither of them are on the same page. However, a time and place is set, but Donovan has to ensure the East German's and Soviets will keep their word on a deal.

It's a film which finds new life in the tired old Hollywood genre of Cold War espionage films. It's a different kind of espionage film. We've had them all before with films like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965) and Topaz (1969), and even more recent efforts like The Good Shepherd (2006) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). Even though this one is a true story, it's an entertaining one, and it paints Donovan as a bit of an unsung hero during the Cold War, which he probably was. Spielberg tells the story from an original angle, it shows a family man wanting to do the right thing for his country, and indeed, a country that was also seen as the enemy. This could have been an angry and politically charged film like Munich (2005), but it's not. It's a lot lighter than that, it's still a serious film, but it has a sense of humour about it, and that's thanks to the contributions the Coen Brothers make. Mainly in the dialogue scenes between Donovan and Abel, the Standing Man story is a definite Coen monologue, as well as bits of dialogue from Abel like "Would it help?" and "Well, the boss isn't always right. But, he's always the boss." Charman's brilliant screenplay is beautifully enhanced by dialogue and a few amusing East German/Soviet characters that could only have come from the imaginations of the Coen Brothers, and that's what gives the film a bit of an edge. Spielberg is at the top of his game with this film, and while he took on Soviets before in a lighthearted, fictional manner in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), here, he shows how dangerous and brutal the Soviets truly were. Especially in Berlin as the cruel Berlin wall would divide a city. But, it captures the tense paranoia of the era well.

Spielberg also assembled a good team to bring this story to the screen, collaborating with old friends and some new faces too. Janusz Kamiński, (on his 15th film with Spielberg), gives the film a warm glow in the America set scenes, but keeps it cold and harsh once we get to East Berlin. The camera work keeps it tight on the characters during the dialogue scenes too. To design the film, Spielberg chose someone he hadn't worked with before, but a respectable and original production designed nontheless. Adam Stockhausen worked with Wes Anderson on Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), the latter of which won him an Oscar, as well as Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave (2013), and it's very detailed with how things were back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, the brash commercialism of America, and the sparseness of East Berlin, where poverty was high. The attention to detail is exquisite, the East German offices where clerks travel through the corridors on bikes is a quirky but memorable touch. It's a beautiful looking film, and as stated previously, it captures the era well. Also new to the Spielberg filmmaking family, although a last minute addition, is composer Thomas Newman, who replaced an ailing John Williams, and while a Spielberg film without a Williams score is unthinkable, (hey, The Color Purple (1985) was scored by Quincy Jones), Newman puts in a good score, without having to plagiarise Williams' style, the music comes in at the right moments, and it works well. Also reuniting with Spielberg is his longtime editor Michael Kahn, who has been with Spielberg since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spielberg and Kahn work well together, and this is a multi-layered story. There's that of Donovan and Abel, which is the first third of the film, then Powers is introduced, and Powers getting shot down, and then we have Pryor's story where he's captured. To juggle all those bits of the plot, and have them come in at the right times in the film isn't easy, but Kahn does it with ease.

Castwise, Spielberg hit the jackpot here. He reunites for the 4th time with Tom Hanks after Saving Private Ryan (1998), Catch Me If You Can (2002) and The Terminal (2004), and Hanks makes Donovan a likable and determined man. Donovan is a man who knows what he wants and he's going to fight to get it. He makes it clear from when he arrives in Berlin, he's going to get Powers and Pryor, and despite overwhelming odds from the Soviet's and East Germans, Donovan won't give in. This is the sort of role Hanks was born to play, and it's a perfect part for him, an everyman who wants to do right for his family and his country, Donovan might have been hated for defending a Soviet Spy, but as it turns out, he did it for the right reasons. James Stewart would have killed for this part. But Hanks, and indeed, everyone else in the film is blown of the screen by Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. The Soviet Spy who came into good use. Rylance is best known for his work on stage in plays like Much Ado About Nothing in 1994 and Jerusalem in 2011, but he's appeared in films like Intimacy (2001) and The Gunman (2015), but recently, he's won plaudits for his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in BBC's Wolf Hall. Rylance was approached to work with Spielberg on Empire of the Sun (1987), but stage work got in the way. Rylance puts in a tremendous performance as Abel, who despite being a Soviet spy, is actually likable, and you can identify with him. He's not an evil man, he's just doing his job for his country. He's not a physical threat either. Rylance gives a spirited and original performance as Abel, and he should get nominations for this role, you can see why Spielberg has cast him as the title role in The BFG (2016) on the basis of this. There's cameos in the film from Alan Alda as Thomas Watters, Donovan's boss, Austin Stowell as Powers, and Jesse Plemons as Power's friend Murphy.





Bridge of Spies could have been a dark, brooding courtroom thriller in  other hands, but one that would have been difficult to connect with and enjoy. But, thanks to a very original screenplay of a gripping and surprising true story. Spielberg makes it his own, and makes it enjoyable and entertaining. It's quite surprising how funny some of the film is, but as stated before, most of that is down to the Coen Brothers, and their brand of writing. But, it's a film which shows that countries that aren't on speaking terms can put their heads together and prevent bigger problems occurring when it comes to one another's men stuck on the wrong side. Since Saving Private Ryan (1998), Spielberg has been in one of the most exciting and unpredictable phases of his near-perfect career, he's done think-piece sci-fi films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Minority Report (2002), bubbly dark comedies like Catch Me If You Can (2002) and The Terminal (2004), prestigious dramas like Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012) and pure entertainment like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and The Adventures of Tintin (2011). Bridge of Spies continues that trend, it's a different kind of Cold War film. It's about people, it doesn't get bogged down deeply with politics or the rights or wrongs of what our characters are doing, it's a film about characters. People from different nationalities and backgrounds coming together to solve a problem, even if they're not all on the same page. Cold War films might seem passe now, but as Spielberg as proven, there's still life in them, and there's still stories to be told, and the story of what James B. Donovan did is one that deserves to be told. This is a true David and Goliath tale.
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