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The Commitments

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Steven Spielberg is in fine form with this humane story of international spies working amid the threat of war.


Hanks reunites with Spielberg on the Bridge of Spies
Hanks reunites with Spielberg on the Bridge of Spies

So here we are in 2015. There’s a refugee crisis in Europe as hundreds of thousands of civilians flee war-torn Syria. Terrorists are afoot abroad; the ranks of homegrown terrorists are increasing. And tensions are ratcheting back up between the U.S. and Russia.

Questions are being asked about what it means to be an American. What does “justice for all” really entail? Questions are also being asked about what it is to be a European. What is the fully realized dream of the European Union?

Who knew, then, that this story set in the Cold War era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (and inspired by true events) would have so much to say about the world today?

But so it is. Spielberg, working with a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen (Unbroken) and Matt Charman (Suite Francaise), has given this material about spies and counter spies nearly the same meticulous details and layers of resonance as seen in Schindler’s List and Munich, two of his finest movies. This story is a natural complement.


The action starts in 1957. A meek, soft-spoken artist dabbles with brush and paint, casually adjusts his canvas tripod and inconspicuously removes a magnetic coin from a park bench. The coin, it’s soon revealed, contains a tiny piece of paper with a coded message. That’s also when the FBI bursts into Rudolf Abel’s room and arrests him for espionage. Rudolf (Mark Rylance, Anonymous) was born in England but he carries a Russian passport.

Enter James Donovan (Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan), a prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials. While he’s since gone on to work in a private practice representing an insurance company, he’s co-opted into defending Rudolf in court. Thrust into a case he wasn’t looking for, James takes the high road and does his best to ensure Rudolf receives a fair trial.

The odds are against James; he’s stared down on the subway and he’s every bit as reviled as Rudolf for taking the accused spy’s case.

This is one of those stories about the right people falling into the right place at the right time. As an attorney in the insurance industry, James thinks in terms of probabilities. We’ve got one of their spies, James explains, so what are the odds the Soviets will get one of ours? Instead of executing Rudolf, he should at the least be held as a bargaining chip.

As it happens, events escalate. A U-2 spy plane pilot is shot down and captured. James is once again roped into the situation; he is, after all, the perfect unofficial representative of the U.S.

Far Away, So Close

The titular Bridge of Spies, now called the Glienicke Bridge, connects what was then East and West Germany. It’s where the exchange is set for Rudolf and the American U-2 pilot, Francis Powers (Austin Stowell, Whiplash).

As James travels through Berlin for negotiations, his encounters are at turns creepy, humorous and touching. The hard times and hard lives of East Berlin are brought to the fore as the Berlin Wall is completed. And an unspoken question is toyed with in the back of James’ mind: Is Rudolf better off in the custody of the U.S. rather than being returned to Russia?

Nobody’s more fluent in the visual language of cinema than Spielberg, and with Bridge of Spies he has room to be both playful and tense.

There’s cleverness in the visuals; black umbrellas brandished by stiff suits collide on the rainy streets of New York City in the fine tradition of film noir. There’s also wordplay in the verbiage, particularly as James plies his trade as a lawyer for an insurance company; in one of the opening scenes he makes a case for his client as to how a car hitting five motorcyclists in a single incident is one accident, not five.

That rationale comes back into focus later as James goes rogue and ups the ante in negotiations with the monolithic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the relatively nascent German Democratic Republic. The Berlin Wall is under construction and one well-meaning American student gets caught on the wrong side of the fence — and is accused of being a spy.

As it turns out, James Donovan is, to a slight degree, an American Oskar Schindler. This is the kind of material that offers some truly interesting people pursuing incredibly risky endeavors. James, as the end title cards indicate, was later recruited in a mission related to American captives in Cuba. What started as negotiations for 1,000 Americans ultimately led to the release of some 9,000.