The Last Dollar was a US coin that was given to American fighter pilots. A secret pin had been inserted, that was tipped with cyanide. If they were captured, they were to scratch their skin with the pin and the deadly poison would take immediate effect. And as global warfare rumbles across our own lives, Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s latest epic, impeccably set in the sharp-suited stealth of the mid-20th century Cold War, makes for must-see viewing. It’s an insiders’ insight into espionage.
Starring Tom Hanks, playing a lawyer, on just the right side of bumbling, the Spielberg/Hanks collaboration works like cinnamon on Mom’s apple pie.
It’s the first film the duo has made together since The Terminal in 2004. The thriller is based on a true story that Brit playwright Matt Chapman brought to Spielberg. James Donovan (Hanks) got the short straw, when his law firm put him up to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).
Donovan was pilloried by the people and establishment of America and even his own family were against his decision to stand up for justice for Abel. But Donovan morphs from an awkward insurance lawyer into a fearless champion of human rights, set up to travel to Berlin to do a spy exchange of Abel for Gary Powers a US fighter pilot, shot down by the Russians in 1960. Powers was flying a top-secret U2 spy plane, but didn’t use his Last Dollar and ended up being held by the Russians for interrogation. An American student also comes into the mix, as he has been scooped by the Stasi in East Berlin.
The script is terrific, as it has also had the writing skills of the iconic Coen brothers to shape it for the screen. Dark humour abounds and lines like Abel’s ‘The boss isn’t always right, but he’s always the boss’ have a Fargo-esque rhythm to them. As a foil to the big presence of Hanks, Mark Rylance is the epitome of the unflappable Russian secret agent, with an almost ethereal presence on screen. The actor, most notable for his stage roles is already being touted for an Academy nomination. He retains his mystery to the last credits, including his strange Scottish accent, method acting, doubtless.
Veteran Alan Alda and Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) also play cameos, in a strong cast.
The treachery, suspicion and violence of the spymasters and governments of the times led inexorably into the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s. On-screen, they are played out against the ‘duck and cover’ message being taught to US schoolchildren then, in case of nuclear attack. A bath tub being filled with water for an emergency is actually an episode from Spielberg’s own childhood, as American kids were tutored to fear the Ruskies.
The inherent decency of Donovan, who went on to save thousands of hostages, just about rescues this movie from being too Stars and Stripes Gump- flavoured, but the contrast in the treatment of the suspected spies and between a bombed-out divided Berlin and US suburban life at the time is extreme. It’s most moving, as Donovan returns home from East Germany and savours a view of his house from the street, before entering – Spielberg’s light touch at its most effective. Pictures really are worth a thousand words.
by Liz Kennedy. Bridge of Spies (141 mins) is a 12a certificate.