Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 4, 2016

Bridge of Spies

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:38 pm

Among the Hollywood films that I had a chance to screen prior to NYFCO’s awards meeting in December was Stephen Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”, a dramatization of the prisoner exchange of Rudolf Abel and Francis Gary Powers in 1962. It is brilliantly acted and directed and was my pick for one of the three best films of 2015. Since I have had big problems with Spielberg’s “serious” films in the past, my expectations were low. Usually they are flag-waving affairs soaked in Frank Capra type sentimentality. Did the inclusion of the Coen brothers on the screenwriting team contribute to a more detached and even ironic tone? If so, this is their best work in years as well.

Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, the lawyer hired for Abel’s defense. While no relation to “Wild Bill” Donovan, the head of the OSS, he served as the general counsel for the OSS during WWII. This was one of the primary motivations for having him involved with the Abel case since he was knowledgeable about the spook world. This background was not mentioned in the film, which tried to draw a dramatic contrast between the gravity of the case and Donovan’s seemingly prosaic job as a partner in a law firm specializing in insurance settlements. It does point out that he was an assistant to the lead attorney in the Nuremberg trials but for the most part Hanks is cast as a home-spun idealist and principled liberal who believes in the right of all people to have adequate representation in a trial, including a Russian spy. In the past this was the kind of role associated with James Stewart or Gregory Peck so Hanks has obviously stepped into their shoes with aplomb.

This is not the first time Spielberg has made a film about an American lawyer taking on a landmark case defending an unpopular client. His “Amistad” told the story of how John Quincy Adams’s successfully defended the slaves who had taken over a ship after killing most of its crew, a film that is marred by its failure to dramatize the abolitionist movement’s efforts on their behalf, a flaw of his “Lincoln” as well.

Taking obvious liberties with the historical record, Donovan is depicted as being far more courageous than was the case. You get the impression that he was taking the same kind of risks as a human rights lawyer in China today. By 1960, the Cold War had already begun to deescalate. The Khrushchev revelations and the election of JFK in 1961 were signposts that Joe McCarthy and the witch-hunt belonged to America’s past. In the film night raiders fire bullets through the windows of Donovan’s house but that never happened. Furthermore, in Donovan’s book on the trial and prisoner exchange titled “Strangers on a Bridge”, he states categorically that most of the phone calls and letters he got were complimentary.

That being said, Donovan’s work on Abel’s defense was key to his being spared the same fate of the “atom spies” who were part of his network. He explains his legal strategy as follows in “Strangers on a Bridge”:

A careful distinction should be drawn between the position of this defendant and people such as the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss. If the government’s allegations are true, it means that instead of dealing with Americans who have betrayed their country, we have here a Russian citizen, in a quasi-military capacity, who has served his country on an extraordinarily dangerous mission. I would hope, as an American, that the United States government has similar men on similar missions in many countries of the world.

Of course, the Rosenbergs were not exactly traitors either (only Julius passed on the atomic “secrets”, which were not secrets at all) if you take into account that the USA and the USSR were allies at the time. Perhaps if Abel had been arrested in 1950 instead of 1960, he would have met the same fate.

The film’s most memorable scenes involve Hanks in lawyer-client type conversations with Mark Rylance who plays Abel. Rylance, a stage actor who was the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London from 1995 to 2005, was my pick for best supporting actor of 2015. His Abel is a man of quiet conviction who is as principled and even heroic in his own way as Dalton Trumbo, another Communist who was redeemed this year in film as well. There is very little discussion of ideology in the prison meetings between the two actors. It is mostly about what it will take to save Abel’s life, a key to which was Donovan’s recommendation of leniency to the judge on the basis that Abel could be useful in exactly the kind of prisoner exchange that would take place in the thrilling climax of the film.

Once in Berlin, Hanks is depicted as in a high stakes poker game with the East Germans who hope to get diplomatic recognition in a final deal between the two superpowers. The Russians are seen as indifferent to their demands and mostly bent on getting Abel back home before American pressure forces him to reveal top secrets. I simply do not have enough knowledge about East German and Soviet relations in this period to judge whether or not they had such divergent interests but knowing what I know about Stalin, it would not surprise me at all.

Gareth Dale wrote what can only be described as a hatchet job on “Bridge of Spies” in Jacobin magazine. He complained that the film is a “conservative’s wet dream” even though it is obvious, as he even admits, that it is a typically liberal statement from Spielberg who is committed to that kind of politics.

There is nothing in his article that addresses the film as film except to say that Mark Rylance plays Abel “captivatingly”. Although I am as eager as any other leftie to hurl brickbats at Spielberg for political reasons, I am also committed to film as art. I doubt if I would ever go so far as to praise the director of “The Birth of a Nation” as James Agee did in a 1948 Nation Magazine article but it is worth considering what he wrote:

The most beautiful single shot I have seen in any movie is the battle charge in The Birth of a Nation. I have heard it praised for its realism, and that is deserved; but it is also far beyond realism. It seems to me to be a perfect realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like, as veterans might remember it fifty years later, or as children, fifty years later, might imagine it.

Can we judge Stephen Spielberg in the same terms? I would say yes. Over a career spanning forty-two years, he has made some of the greatest films that have ever been seen in a Cineplex. Like another Hollywood director with problematic politics (I speak here of Frank Capra rather than D.W. Griffith), Spielberg has to be judged for his story-telling ability, his cinematic sweep and his ability to extract memorable performances from his actors. I don’t expect Gareth Dale to pay much attention to such criteria but they should be taken into account by people who want to spend a couple of hours in the company of actors “captivatingly” directed by one of our best.

Going from best to worst, you might want to take a look at the documentary “Chuck Norris vs. Communism” that airs tonight on PBS at 10pm EST. It makes a preposterous argument that bootleg VHS videos from Hollywood were key to the overthrow of Ceausescu in 1989. Supposedly the fancy clothes, Lamborghinis and big houses seen in B-Movies gave Romanians the desire to overthrow Communism.

The film consists of Romanians reminiscing about video shows in various homes where they paid a modest fee to see something like “Rambo” or “The Godfather”. No disrespect to the people interviewed (well, some disrespect anyhow), they strike one as typical couch potatoes who likely would have been as far from street battles as their feet would carry them.

The films were smuggled into Romania by a man named Teodor Zamfir and dubbed vocally by a young woman named Irina Nisto who worked in a state agency as a translator. Supposedly this was as dangerous an undertaking as Rudolf Abel’s spy network but everybody in Romania knew about it. Among Zamfir’s customers were top security cops who must have been aware that the voice heard in the crappy Hollywood films swarming across Romania like locusts was none other than that of Irina Nisto. The whole thing has the stale aroma of a Yakov Smirnoff standup routine. It is worth watching for a laugh or two.

The documentary makes Romania sound like a totalitarian dungeon (which is certainly was) but the idea that a culture-starved people would be satisfied by Chuck Norris movies is laughable. Despite its bureaucratic straightjacket, the nation’s film ministry was committed to bringing the best films to the people including works of Italian neorealism and its successors (Rome, Open City, Bicycle Thieves, and Rocco His Brothers). It also brought in the best and worst of Hollywood including Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, Gone with the Wind as well as many oaters. This is not to speak of some great films from France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Mexico, Japan and China. (For more on the rich history of Romanian cinema, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinema_of_Romania).

 

 

 

4 Comments »

  1. “you get the impression that he was taking the same kind of risks as a human rights lawyer in China today”… It would certainly be more appropriate to write …” as a human rights lawyer in Turkey today”. I don’t know of any lawyers in China being gunned down, but just like George Clooney, you do like to have all the right kind of enemies while doing the ol’ human rights shtick. Anyways, I will check out the flick.

    Comment by Georges — January 5, 2016 @ 1:10 am

  2. I thought Bridge of Spies was great. I expected hackwork and got art. I don’t see how it was “a conservative’s wet dream.” Virtually everyone who isn’t Donovan or Abel comes off as a jerk, including the CIA guys.

    Comment by jschulman — January 5, 2016 @ 5:08 am

  3. @#2. The “conservative’s wet dream” is likely because the film depicted Communist Romania as a “Totalitarian Dungeon.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 7, 2016 @ 12:08 am

  4. The “conservative’s wet dream” quote referred to BRIDGE OF SPIES, not the Norris documentary. Dale justifies it on the grounds that it shows “Stepford wives fawn[ing] over their hero husbands” (which I think is a massive misreading of Amy Ryan’s character) and because “no black people cross the screen,” while the Eastern bloc is depicted in dour gray tones and “state officials and soldiers are callous or duplicitous” (though I would say U.S. officialdom doesn’t come off much better).

    Comment by Jean-Michel — January 7, 2016 @ 4:35 am


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