The superb new Spielberg movie is a showcase for the superb new Spielberg.
In a recent interview with deadline.com, Guillermo del Toro – whose entertaining throwback to Gothic horror, Crimson Peak, is in theatres now – spoke of his admiration for Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. “It’s preternaturally nimble with such grace in the way it’s staged. It’s so brisk. It’s so breathless. It’s so apparently effortless and so damn fluid. The hardest thing to accomplish on film is to make time stand still, or make a story completely fluid. Those are two truly, truly difficult things to do… The way [Spielberg’s] narrative flows is just almost miraculous and so beautifully staged.” In other words, del Toro admires Spielberg for the reasons many of us do: his amazing ability to direct a sequence. Few other directors use the space on screen so well, move the camera so instinctually that we think this is the only way this sequence could have been staged, the only way it would have made sense.
When we think of Spielberg, therefore, we think in terms of his set pieces – those extended sequences in which all filmmaking elements coalesce with breathtaking logistical planning – and there’s a doozy of a set piece in the director’s superb new movie, Bridge of Spies. But first a bit of background. It’s 1957, the height of the Cold War. A Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel is captured in Brooklyn and sent to trial, defended by an insurance lawyer named James Donovan. Despite Donovan’s spirited arguments, Abel is found guilty and sentenced to prison – until the capture of an American spy by the Russians makes Abel a valuable bargaining chip. Give us our man, the Americans say, and we’ll let you have Abel. The exchange will take place on the Glienicke Bridge (also known by the film’s title) in Germany, and the set piece kicks in around the time Donovan goes there, as the Wall is being built.
The camera moves back and forth, capturing blocks of stone and barbed wire being dropped in place to divide a nation, and we see, simultaneously, people trying to leave (what will become) East Germany and go to the West. The thing that links all this activity is the arrest of an American student named Frederic Pryor. He cycles from West to East, finds his girlfriend, asks her to leave at once, they cycle back to the Wall… only to find that the last stone is being lowered. Indiana Jones found himself in a similar situation once, when his enemies left him behind in the crypt where he found the Ark – there too, a slab of stone blocked off his exit. But that Spielberg was out to thrill us, do the things that del Toro so admired, whereas the Spielberg of Bridge of Spies isn’t out to dazzle. This set piece doesn’t scream for attention. It just is. We’re being shown what happened to Frederic Pryor, what happened around Frederic Pryor that day. It’s still a master class on how to transform pages of a talky screenplay into pure cinema – only now, there’s a subtler magician on stage.
Many people confuse the worthiness of the subject with the quality of the filmmaking, and some of Spielberg’s films, like Amistad, have told important stories without making a convincing case for why these stories wouldn’t have been better off as a book or a play. But with films like Munich and Bridge of Spies, Spielberg has moved to a realm of artistry where he’s able to put out ideas and also give us cinema, which is something of a Holy Grail for mainstream filmmakers who aren’t just out to make a buck. (It’s important to judge Spielberg as a mainstream filmmaker, and not compare him to someone who might make more uncompromised films that would play in a handful of art-house theatres.) How to entertain versus how to educate. How to make us enjoy the film (a function of our senses) and yet make us think (a function of the intellect). Spielberg balances it all beautifully. From an overhead train in Germany, Donovan looks down on people being shot as they try to scale the wall. Back home, he looks down from another train and sees kids clambering casually over suburban fences. It’s contrast, yes – but as in Munich, it’s also a reminder that the horrors we witness never really leave us. It wasn’t that Spielberg wasn’t doing any of this earlier, but even his “serious films” like Schindler’s List were largely sensory experiences. We were sucked into the drama on screen. Now, he’s cooler, more detached. The comparison isn’t accidental. Like Oskar Schindler, James Donovan is doing his darnedest to save lives.
But where Schindler’s List seems like a slice of history, a glimpse into a world that once was, Munich and Bridge of Spies come off as past events whose echoes are felt even today. When there’s madness all around, how does one keep his sanity and do the right thing, the decent thing – especially when this course of action gets you labelled a Boy Scout, a bleeding-heart liberal? How does one treat a prisoner of war? (Abel to Donovan: “You have men like me working for your country. If they were caught I am sure you’d want them to be treated well.”) To what extent should due process be followed? These questions come up in Bridge of Spies and they’re all around us today. There’s even a nod to how we take our cues from the media. How the papers talk about Donovan is how people treat him.
Bridge of Spies tells us that there are two sides to everything. Seen through American eyes, Abel is a Commie rat. There’s a stunning cut – perhaps an editorial decision, perhaps it was written that way – when the judge enters the courtroom and we hear the words “all rise,” but we move to a classroom where children get up and proclaim their allegiance to the American flag. This is the Normal Rockwell picture of life that people like Abel are threatening. And yet, isn’t Abel, from Russia’s viewpoint, a patriot, a hero even? I was reminded of the Alexander-Porus legend – they were enemies who recognised that the other was merely doing what one was doing himself. Had Spielberg made Schindler’s List today, he may have given the monstrous Nazi commandant Amon Goeth (played so chillingly by Ralph Fiennes) a more human face. We’d still have hated him, but maybe we’d have seen that he was a product of his times, like we all are.
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