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Dhaka Tribune

Bridge of Spies: The Art of Conversation

Update : 30 Jan 2016, 06:26 PM

No one but the masterful director Steven Spielberg, with his gifted team of craftsmen, could have weaved a dicey film like Bridge of Spies with such artistic integrity. The film is based on the true events leading up to the historic exchange of captured spies between two arch-enemies, the United States and Russia, at Glienicke Bridge in Berlin on February 10, 1962.

When James Donovan was asked to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, the most hated man in America, he had no idea that he himself would soon become the second most hated man in his own country. But Donovan is no ordinary American, and Abel is no ordinary Russian. These two are honourable men, and patriots. He recognises Abel as an enemy but develops a deep respect for him. Donovan’s heartfelt speech at the Supreme Court epitomises the soul of the film.

The tables turn when an American spy plane pilot, Gary Powers, is captured by the Russians and again, Donovan is chosen to do the negotiations in Russia occupied East Berlin, at a dangerous time when the Berlin Wall is being constructed to contain the outburst of refugees. What follows is a first-rate lesson on the art of conversation as Donovan talks to the Soviet Union and East German officials buried in shadowy bureaucracy.    

The film focuses on the importance of talking with the enemy, and raises some critical questions: what is the difference between an agent and a spy, a patriot and a traitor, ‘our guy’ and ‘their guy’? However, the film does not take the spy-thriller path of the bestselling book Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell; instead, it takes the nuts-and-bolts path of Strangers on a Bridge written by James Donovan himself. It belongs with films like Grand Illusion (1937), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), and Right Stuff (1983).  

Bridge of Spies does not pretend to shed light into the complex geopolitics of postwar Europe, divided by the ‘Iron Curtain’ of conflicting ideologies of two superpowers, but asks us to see it in a new light. The characters talk in dark interiors with sunlight flowing through the windows, so that we constantly need to readjust our eyes as we cut back and forth between wide-shots and medium shots (hardly any close-ups) of the conversationalists. Even the music does not try to manipulate us or to elevate the scenes, it is subtle and serves to underline the significance of historic places like Friedrichstraße Station and Glienicke Bridge.

Tom Hanks as the fearless Donovan and Mark Rylance as the secretive but honorable enemy Abel are the kernel of the film, which shows the parallelism between two lonely agents (or spies) working abroad in cold hostility. The film opens with Abel’s reflection on a mirror and ends with Donovan’s reflection through a glass Window, and is clearly a tribute to great Americans like James Donovan. 

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