Bridge Of Spies is a Spielberg drama I missed out on seeing during its original theatrical release. I only saw it once it was a choice on a flight I took heading home. It was a good choice.
The film begins in 1957 with Rudolf Abel arrested by CIA agents as he’s trying to read a secret message. He is taken away but is able to keep the message. As Abel awaits trial, American lawyer James Donovan is assigned to defend him. The US government believes him to be a KGB spy but Donovan wants to have a fair trial because an unfair trial may be used as propaganda in the USSR. Donovan meets Abel whom is very welcoming to Donovan but will not cooperate with the US Government for any revelations in the intelligence world.
Donovan knows he has a heavy task in defending Abel. He’s serious about it but no one, not even his closest family, expects him to make a strong defense for Abel. Nevertheless Donovan is persistent and continues to seek acquittal for Abel despite an angry American public, persistent hate mail and threats on the lives of him and his family. Abel is found guilty on all charges. Before sentencing, Donovan asks the judge that Abel receive a prison sentence of 30 years instead of the death penalty because he feels Abel may become a bargaining chip with the Soviet Union. Further difficulties continue as Donovan is unable to win a Supreme Court case where evidence against Abel was tainted by an invalid search warrant.
Meanwhile two innocent Americans find themselves in the hands of Communists. One is US air force pilot Francis Powers whose plane is just shot down between the USSR-Turkish border. He’s able to escape his doomed plane and tries to steer his parachute into Turkey but fails and becomes captive. The other is Frederic Pryor, an American economics student studying in Germany just as the Berlin Wall is being built. He studies in West Berlin but has a girlfriend in East Berlin. He tried to bring her with him to the West but is arrested as a spy.
News gets to Donovan of the two men arrests. He’s even offered a deal from the USSR of the exchange of Abel for Powers. Donovan is insisting in a 2-for-1 deal of exchanging Abel for both Powers and Pryor. However he has the challenge of dealing with Soviet agents and a CIA that’s interested in only getting Powers back. The whole deal puts the governments of three nations– East Germany, the USA and the USSR– in a heated debate with Donovan make the outcome work out right. The end result is historic.
This is yet another film about war Steven Spielberg does focus on. There have been many films of the theme of war he’s done in his career. The wars he have depicted on screen have spanned time from World War II in Empire Of The Sun and Saving Private Ryan to World War I in The War Horse to the Civil War in Lincoln to even revenge missions in Munich.
Here he tackles a war that’s less about brutality but more about ideology and had victims of their own: the Cold War. Although there wasn’t as much blood shed, the Cold War did put a sense of paralyzing fear in the world, especially in the United States, with a possibility of nuclear war and armageddon. Thus the ‘duck and cover’ scene. Ask anyone over the age of 60 about doing all those ‘duck and cover’ practices at school. People were constantly being suspected as spies on both sides and there were reactions of hysteria to those accused of spying or treason. The construction of the Berlin Wall at a time when Germany was divided between the capitalist West and the Communist East is an example of the war.
The story takes us back to the 1950’s at a time when Cold War hysteria was at its highest. Neither side could be trusted if one from the other country came in to visit. That explains why even innocent visitors could be seen with suspicion. People arrested as spies for the other side were huge headline news. Most of the public wanted them dead with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg still fresh in their minds. It’s easy to see why someone like James Donovan would be so easily vilified by the American public and even face a possible shooting. The film shows why James’ efforts in the prisoner trade were necessary in the Cold War. It was something that was able to ease some tension on both sides.
Spielberg does a very good job of showing what the Cold War was like. Instead of showing fighting that’s common in the wars, he focuses on the more tense moments of the Cold War and captures its tense feel most people of that time felt. The screenwriting by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers was very good in providing insight to the moments in history and keeping the key elements of the situation. It didn’t focus too much on Jim’s personal life but it did focus on his efforts and even on the prisoners themselves. It may lack some historical accuracy but it does provide knowledge and keep the audience intrigued. Its one glitch is that it had too sweet of an ending. I don’t think it ended on the right note.
Tom Hanks was very good as Jim Donovan but it’s not at the same level as his most stellar roles. The biggest scene-stealer of the film was Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. He not only matched Abel physically but also gave him character with his love for art and his ability to say persuasive things. Other good supporting performances came from Amy Ryan as Jim’s wife and Alan Alda as Thomas Watters. Janusz Kaminski did a very good job of cinematography, the production designers did a very good job of recreating the 1950’s and 1960’s with their sets and Thomas Newman delivered a very good score to the film.
Bridge Of Spies is very much a story about a lawyer and his pursuits but also the times he had to deal with. Reminds you of some of the political tensions and paranoia that’s currently happening now. Spielberg does a good job of capturing the feel of the intensity as well as the political climate of the story.
I’ll admit I saw Spotlight two months ago and I’ve been procrastinating at writing my review. Now that the Oscar nominations are out–actually only an hour ago– this is a better time than ever.
The film begins in the 1970’s of a priest being fired from his job as a teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Boston. Fast forward to 2001. The Boston Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron. He first learns of the investigative Spotlight team of the paper headed by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson.
Baron gives the Spotlight team a story to chase: a story of a priest sexual abusing children and Cardinal Bernard Law knowing about it and doing nothing about it. It first starts as a pursuit on a single priest who was continuously moved around from school to school. Over time it they would uncover that there were many priests who also committed acts of sexual abuse on school children and they were all covered up by the Archdiocese.
This is one story they had to get to the bottom of. However they’re limited in terms of resources. Plus they need permission to access sealed documents and have a trial or even an inquiry happen and they doubt they can get it from a Catholic judge. They talk with a head of a victims rights group who himself was abused, they talk to other abuse victims, they talk to a lawyer who’s handling the cases of some of the victims and they even find through an ex-priest who tried to rehabilitate pedophile priests that there could be as 90 sex offenders in the clergy. Further research uncovers additional priests moved about upon their actions being revealed and being listed as ‘relocated’ or ‘resigned.’
In September 2001 it appears the Spotlight team is finally ready to release the story. Then 9/11 happens which makes every other news story in the world take a backseat and cause even a further delay of the story being printed. However the wait works for the better as one of the Spotlight reporters, Michael Rezendes, uncovers proof through publicly available documents that Law knew all about the abuse going on and ignored it. Then a major victory. The judge grants them the right to look into sealed documents. Just as they are about to print the story, Robinson confesses he published a list of pedophile priests in 1993 but he never followed up on it. As the story is published, it creates history.
I’m sure that some people would be nervous about this film and declare it ‘anti-Catholic.’ In fact if I were a conservative conspiracy theorist, I would say Spotlight is a film released by an anti-Catholic director who wonders where all the Catholic hate from liberals went once Pope Francis came to power and wants Spotlight to bring it back. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist nor am I a conservative pundit. In fact the film has received positive feedback from Vatican Radio and even the current Cardinal of Boston praised it in showing how the Archdiocese had to confront its wrong.
I will say that I’ve seen bigger even more savage attacks on the Catholic Church in films in the past, especially from Martin Scorsese. In fact I remember watching 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters where the nuns were depicted as total monsters. I feel films nowadays are less anti-Catholic than that of 20 years ago or even 40 years ago. In fact one thing I give the film credit for is that it looks at all sides. It may portray Cardinal Law as a conniver but it wasn’t hard on depiction of the priests. In fact one scene that stuck out to me was when one of the alleged priests was interviewed. He not only appeared confused in how he didn’t know what sexual abuse was but admitted that he was raped as a boy. That not only shocked me but left me wondering how many of the abusive priests were themselves sexually abused as a boy?
On a personal note, I will admit that when I first saw the film, I left the theatre asking myself “Jon, why did you return to the Catholic Church?” It was a dilemma for days but it did solve itself over time. In fact shortly after, I wrote on my Facebook page: “I gave the Catholic Church a second chance in 2003 and it better not blow it this time.” I will never excuse a priest for sexually abusing any child. I believe they should be brought to justice. In fact, Pope Benedict clarified the issue when he said: “Forgiveness is not a replacement for justice.” I know you can’t take back the past however you can improve the future. The Catholic Church has not become blind to the issue of sexual abuse. In fact I learned from one man who tried to enter into education for the priesthood he had to get a criminal record check, an HIV test and a psychiatric assessment. I’m happy that the Catholic Church is taking the best preventative measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
In fact off topic from the film, I will admit that sexual abuse and the various Diocese’s and Archdiocese’s bad handling of it is a problem but I will also say that it’s a problem that goes far beyond the Catholic Church. It’s a problem that exists in other churches as well, it exists within certain families, it exists within school and it even exists within children’s sports programs. In fact this decade’s biggest sexual-abuse-and-cover-up story came not from a Catholic institution but from coach Jerry Sandusky and the cover up from Penn State university. Makes you wonder why the priesthood gets a lot of defamation from the sexual abuse of those while children’s sports coaches don’t get the same defamation. A sex offender is a sex offender no matter what their profession or even if it’s not to do with a profession at all. Same thing with Universities, especially since it’s only come to light that colleges have a known rape problem but they’re doing next to nothing about it.
Back to the film, I think the biggest thing the film was focusing on was the bad marriage of church and state. Separation of church and state is enforced in the American constitution but it’s not to say it does find its way mixed into politics one way or the other. In fact I don’t think Spotlight attacks the Catholic Church as a whole but actually attack the Archdiocese of Boston. The film presents how the Archdiocese of Boston has such a huge influence over the city. We’re talking about a city with a huge percentage of Catholics and with a history of the Catholic Church giving, providing and influencing the city. No wonder a city like Boston would have such high regard for the Archdiocese. No wonder most Bostonians would look at priests as father figures. No wonder also would that present the biggest difficulty in terms of getting the ugly truth out, especially with people having a high regard for the Church in power and with a Cardinal sweet-talking those determined to get the truth.
The theme of sexual abuse may be very prevalent in the film but I think the biggest focal point of the film was to show a group of reporters uncovering a scandalous story and bringing it to print. One thing is the film doesn’t make like the Spotlight team are the blemish-free good guys of the film. It’s made known near the beginning of the film that this information was given to them five years earlier. They themselves made a big mistake of their own by delaying the story. Sure, they did a whole whack of effort to finally bring it to press in 2002 but they could have done it sooner. I think that was the whole thing of Spotlight is that it was a movie disinterested in making the image of a hero out of anybody. Besides we already hear of the mistakes of having an image of somebody is a bad thing as one abuse victim admitted he looked at priests to be like God. I’m sure millions more have had that deluded image of the priest being like God in their head. However it also shows how easily people can be feel a sense of betrayal by a Church when such atrocities occur. You can’t really blame them for being that disheartened.
I give top credit to director/writer Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer for directing a complex film that’s like a bunch of pieces of a puzzle that had to be put together. This is a story that’s set in the Spotlight room of the Boston Globe and set in various other places throughout and they had to both show all the different parts of the story and make them come together from time to time. They did a good job of making this complex story come together without straying off into unimportant territory. Also they did a very good job of writing a story of sexual abuse that was watchable. I’ve seen other films of sexual abuse that were more explicit like 1992’s The Boys Of St. Vincent. Mind you it was a 90’s thing to do explicit entertainment because envelope-pushing was all the rage back then because 1; you could never put enough nails in the coffin of the Hays Code and 2; because back then softening of scenes or leaving such things out was considered a form of ‘denial’ in art. Anyways these are not the 90’s anymore and watchability is values more. I’m sure if they showed scenes of abuse in the film, it would make it somewhat unwatchable for many. I feel they made a good choice of limiting the topic of abuse to conversations of victims with the journalists. Especially since the top point of the film is how they brought the story to press. Besides I don’t consider compromising elements in a film for the sake of making it more watchable to be a filmmaking weakness. It’s not the 90’s anymore and Tom McCarthy’s not among the likes of Lars Von Trier.
As for acting, there were a lot of great individual performances most notably from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams but none of them owned the film. In fact another top quality of the film is that it’s a combined effort from all the actors to play parts that don’t steal the show and add to the story telling by making it look like a unified effort. Even acting of the smaller roles that that of the abuse victims were excellent and added to the story. Overall this not simply a film that’s well-crafted. This is a film that does capture your intrigue. It’s a combined accomplishment from McCarthy, Singer and the actors.
Spotlight isn’t strictly about the incident. It’s about getting the story to the presses and the battles the Boston Globe had to go through to break the silence and finally get the word out. Keeps you interested from start to finish.