Monday, 14 December 2015

Bridge of Spies (4 Stars)

I was poorly prepared for this film. I didn't realise it was a true story until the end of the film, when the further development of the main characters was described in the informational texts.

In 1957 a Russian spy called Rudolf Abel was arrested in Brooklyn. James Donovan, an insurance lawyer played by Tom Hanks, was requested to defend him in court. He did this to the best of his ability, convinced that every man deserves a fair trial in the American legal system, but nobody else shared his opinion. Even the judge is shown to have made his mind up about Abel's guilt before the trial begins. It's just a show trial, to pretend to the world that American justice is fair. It isn't fair. When Donovan says that the evidence against Abel should be dismissed because it was gained without the use of a search warrant the judge refuses, saying that it's a matter of national security, which is more important than the fine details of the law.

Nevertheless, a bond develops between Donovan and Abel. Donovan sees Abel as a soldier in a war, and he's fighting faithfully for his own country, Russia. That earns his respect.

In 1960 an American spy plane is shot down over Russia, and the pilot, Francis Powers, is captured. Russia suggests, indirectly, a prisoner exchange. They can't call it an exchange, because they don't do exchanges. They say they will free Powers as a sign of good will if America first frees Abel as a sign of good will. They want there to be a few months between the releases to stop it looking like an exchange.

This is where James Donovan is called in again. He's sent to East Berlin in 1961 (shortly after the construction of the Berlin Wall) to negotiate the exchange. His work is hampered by the lack of agreement between Russia and East Germany. At that time America (and most other countries) didn't recognise the existence of East Germany, which called itself the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the German Democratic Republic. America considered East Germany to be a region of Germany that had been annexed by Russia. The East German government considered itself to be independent, Russia's partner rather than Russia's slave. This all led to a lack of cooperation between the Russian and German officials in East Berlin. When Donovan made agreements with the Russians the Germans refused to allow them, and when Donovan made agreements with the Germans the Russians refused to allow them.

The problem with East Germany between 1945 and 1990 is that it was Russia's ally, but it was never a Communist country, except in name. East Germany was the continuation of Nazi Germany in its social and political structure. East Germany had a single party system, a dictator and a secret police that suppressed all opposite to the government in words and deeds. The persecution of Jews continued in East Germany after the war, even if they were no longer murdered. Jewish cemeteries were destroyed and Jewish property was confiscated by the state. High ranking Nazi officials were allowed to carry on working in East Germany.

The film is very gritty and realistic. It's not a chest-beating patriotic film in which America is the good guys and Russia is the bad guys. Everyone is as bad as everyone else. The only good man is James Donovan, caught in the middle and standing up for what he believes is right.

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