Movie Monday: Bridge of Spies (2015)

In the many years of Movie Monday on this blog — honestly, it’s been the most consistent feature — I have mainly focused on trash. This is for a number of reasons: a lot of it is easy to find on the web, it’s fun to write about and, crucially, it tends to be short, with glaring flaws that I can make funny jokes about.

So here I am writing about a Big Serious Film from Big Name Director Steven Spielberg, and it’s about the Cold War and oh Lord here we go.

Bridge of Spies Launch One Sheet

OK, so. Bridge of Spies is based on a thing that did really happen, and is pretty faithful to its inspiration by the standards of a historical drama. In 1957, the FBI arrested a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (here played by Mark Rylance); he was defended by a lawyer named James B. Donovan (Hanks), who fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court despite the fact that no one wanted the guy acquitted. In 1961, Donovan was also involved in exchanging Abel for good ol’ Francis Gary Powers, the pilot whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down by the Soviets in 1960, together with an American grad student named Frederic Pryor who had been arrested by the East Germans basically for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And that’s quite an interesting story, but as we all know, historical movies must be About Something. So what is Bridge of Spies about?

Well, I guess it’s supposed to be about integrity. Donovan is supposed to be a guy who is sort of fundamentally honest, willing to appeal the Abel case because Those Are the Rules, but who grows into a more humane honesty when he tries to save Pryor (who is of no value as an intelligence asset) as well as Powers (who is, of course, very valuable).

Cold War movies tend to be spy thrillers, war movies or stories about finding the shared humanity with people who are supposed to be your enemies. Unless they’re set exclusively in America, in which case they’re about people of principle standing up to a paranoid and repressive American security state (e.g. Good Night and Good Luck). Here, it’s … a little more complicated?

So we start out with the story of Donovan v. Paranoid and Repressive American Security State (hereinafter PRASS). In this one, PRASS, in the persons of a cynical CIA agent (Scott Shepherd), a rich jerk judge (Dakin Matthews), a rich jerk law boss (Alan Alda), and so on, wants Donovan to just bend the rules (inform on Abel, take a dive in court) for the sake of America, but he believes that the rules are America, fights hard for his client and his principles, and incidentally becomes friends with Abel, who is an unassuming guy with a wry sense of humour.

Now that might lead you to think that this is one of those movies about how the Cold War twisted American society into a rotten old maze of institutionalised hatred and partisan self-interest and whatnot, but in the second part of the movie our action moves to East Germany. And of course East Germany is a total shitshow, a mixture of repressive institutions, desperate poverty and the good ol’ Russian boot. And once there things become even twistier and more ambiguous than they were back in the US.

Put these two parts together and the movie becomes both more nuanced and a little simpler: the world is a snaky mess of dirtbags, even if they are dirtbags with nuance and human value, and in such a world it’s important to be as little of a dirtbag as you can be. Something like that, anyway? I mean, you know, Tom Hanks as a figure of weary everyman integrity, just like … most movies.

Historically, it does the things most such films do: it compresses its story, it punches it up and it simplifies it. So, for instance, people were not happy with Donovan in real life, but in the movie someone shoots at his house, which I believe did not happen. Pryor was arrested in East Berlin, but in the movie East German troops beat him up at a half-built Berlin Wall, which was already complete by the time he was arrested. Donovan had a rough time in East Berlin, but he didn’t get mugged like he does in the movie, I don’t think. And of course the film just basically skips the years between 1958 and 1961, making it seem like the whole story takes place in the space of, I don’t know, a few months.

Movie-wise, you know, it’s a film about the Cold War that does, I think, a pretty decent job of showing the murkiness of international relations of the era and which, while critical of American institutions, doesn’t sugar-coat the nature of Eastern Bloc states in doing so. Oh, and it actually deals with the differences between the USSR and its clients, which is something you don’t often see. And it has good performances and a pretty good script and a good general sense of the weirdness of things. It’s not exactly a thrill a minute, but I enjoyed it.

Movie Monday: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Stealing saints

So, a recent episode of the Fencast talked about stealing saints’ relics from one church to take them to another. This might seem like a shocking thing, but it wasn’t actually uncommon in the middle ages, particularly in the early period.

I’ve written about one example before — the removal of the bones of Saint Oswald from Lincolnshire by the Mercians — but there are plenty of others you can look at. This type of thing is known as furta sacra, or “holy theft,” and it rests on a whole bunch of weird assumptions about the power of a saint. I believe, and I speak subject to correction, that the definitive book on the topic is still Furta Sacra by Patrick Geary. It’s not a specifically English thing, either — it happened to no less a luminary than Saint Nicholas, whose remains were swiped and translated to the Italian town of Bari, which is how he became the patron of good ol’ Bohemond of Taranto. Naturally, later sources claimed that Saint Nicholas appeared in a vision to the Italian sailors who nicked them and told them they should take his bones.

Here’s where they stashed the loot.

Same thing happened with Saint Mark in the 9th century; his bones were “rescued” from Alexandria by the Venetians and smuggled out of Egypt concealed under a layer of pork to confuse the Muslim customs inspectors.

So yeah: stealing saints’ bones is a grand old Christian tradition. Doesn’t seem like it should be, but that’s real life for you.

Stealing saints

Movie Monday: Flyboys (2006)


Right, so. During WWI, before the Americans joined in, American volunteer pilots sometimes served with the French air force. They were organised into the Escadrille de Lafayette, which is similar to be not exactly the same as the Lafayette Flying Corps. This film is about those pilots, although it plays pretty loosey-goosey with the history.

Honestly, you can make a long list of the inaccuracies in this film, and many have. The airplane models they show weren’t all flying at the same time, for instance, which is the kind of thing people who go to see WWI films notice but not something I would have spotted myself. It simplifies and condenses and exaggerates and so on, but honestly even that’s not the real problem with it.

It’s just … honestly, this thing could just have been called War Movie.

I mean, there’s a rag-tag bunch of pilots: a rich jerk, an idealistic one, a black guy, a grizzled veteran, etc., etc., etc., and each has a one-sentence plotline. There’s a rootless young hero (James Franco) and a gruff French officer (Jean Reno, because who else), and there’s a noble German who gets killed anyway and a vicious German who kills the secondary good guy but gets his comeuppance in the end. And there’s a pretty girl raising some adorable moppets and they have a sweet love story even though, how whimsical, she doesn’t really speak English and he doesn’t really speak French, and, like, basically …

… if I asked you to sit down and write a movie in which James Franco plays an American airman in France in WWI and I didn’t tell you anything else about the plot, you would write this movie, more or less.

So how much you like this movie depends on how much you like dogfighting sequences and scenes of camp life. From that perspective, it’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. Everybody in it does a fine job. It has fight scenes and landscapes and clearly they spent some money on the sets and things, but just …

… just who cares, really? If you know enough about American service in France during WWI to fit on the back of an envelope, you won’t really learn anything new, and you won’t really be surprised (other than by the resolution of the love story, which I have to admit threw me). So if you like seeing planes fly around and blow up and you’ve already watched Red Tails, which has really good dogfights to go with its absolutely average script, you could watch this, I guess.

OK, I’m being unfair. Here’s a good thing: this is a WWI movie that makes it clear that this is a French conflict and the Americans are a sideshow, and doesn’t try to make the French look bad in any way. So that’s nice.

Movie Monday: Flyboys (2006)

Listen to my voice!

So, I appeared on a podcast! A few weeks ago I dropped in to Huntingdon Community Radio and recorded an episode of the Fencast, a podcast that is all about the local history and legends of the Fen region. I was there to talk about Hereward the Wake and the siege of Ely; I’m not an expert on that, but it’s my period and I think we had a fun conversation during which I made at least one pretty decent point.

In any event, you can find it by just searching for Fencast in your favourite podcast app, or you can download episodes from their website. If you’re interested in folk tales and local history, definitely check out the other episodes too!


Listen to my voice!