The New York Film Festival's transition in the past few years from being more or less purely a showcase for the crème-de-la-crème of world cinema (which it still largely is) to being an increasingly prominent stop on the way to eventual Oscar glory was epitomized by the inclusion of two splashy, high-profile world premieres in this year's edition.
Interestingly, both these films were based on true stories, and directed by popular American filmmakers whose movies attract major stars and have enjoyed considerable box office success. However, the similarities between them mostly end there; in fact, in both concept and execution, they represent nearly polar opposite approaches to filmmaking.
One of these was NYFF's opening night film, Robert Zemeckis' The Walk, based on the true story of French high-wire walker Philippe Petit's death-defying stunt executed on a wire stretched between the two towers of the then under-construction World Trade Center in 1974. The Walk is bleeding-edge, state of the art technology through and through, Petit's walk recreated with green-screen backgrounds and 3D imagery, as much amusement park attraction as it is a movie.
On the other hand, Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, based on the true story of the 1962 negotiated swap of downed US pilot/CIA recruit Gary Powers for Russian spy Rudolf Abel - both captured in enemy territory - is very much a throwback to earlier times of filmmaking, both in its atmosphere and in its technical craft, shot on increasingly rare 35mm, and needing no special eyewear to properly view it.
While I am far from a cinema Luddite, in this case, Spielberg makes a powerful argument in Bridge of Spies for his old-fashioned approach being the far superior method for creating a great work. For all its dazzling 3D effects, The Walk takes a fascinating true-life tale and turns it into shallow characterizations and French-ified clichés. However, while Bridge of Spies ultimately shies away from the moral and historical ambiguities that its narrative could easily have lent itself to, the thrilling filmmaking and cannily nuanced performances lend much deeper shadings, creating a far more satisfying experience.
The opening sequence, during which Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian spy hiding out in Brooklyn, unsuccessfully attempts to elude FBI agents hot on his trail, is as masterful as they come. The chase plays itself out in purely visual terms, with no dialog and minimal music, as the FBI pursue Abel through the streets and subways, and it starts Bridge of Spies off on a high note with one of the most memorable sequences in the Spielberg oeuvre.
After Abel's capture, we are introduced to insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who's drafted by his boss (Alan Alda) into the seemingly thankless task of being Abel's defense attorney. Donovan reluctantly takes the job, which is meant to lend the appearance of providing Abel with a fair trial, even though the deck is clearly stacked in favor of finding Abel guilty. "Everyone will hate me, but at least I'll lose," Donovan wryly notes.
Nevertheless, Donovan goes all out for his client, successfully arguing that Abel shouldn't be put to death, for two reasons: first, it will show that Americans are capable of following the rule of law and not being inhuman to prisoners of war, as Abel essentially is; and secondly, Abel has value as a bargaining chip in case any American gets caught spying in Soviet territory. Donovan, however, pays a high price for this limited courtroom victory; his loyalty is questioned by his colleagues and even his family, and at one point, his house is attacked by angry, unseen strangers.
A few years later, U2 spy-plane pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down while carrying out the CIA's mission of photographing military installations within the Soviet Union. Instead of committing suicide as he has been ordered to do by his superiors, he instead remains alive and is held prisoner by the Soviets.
Donovan is once again recruited for service by the government, tasked to broker an exchange of Powers for Abel, the handoff to take place on the Glienicke Bridge connecting East and West Germany, the titular "bridge of spies." Donovan, as a civilian with no official ties to the U.S. government, is considered to have a better shot at gaining the trust of both sides.
This section of the film brims with verve and sly humor (no doubt largely courtesy of the Coen brothers' contributions to the script), as Donovan, battling a nasty cold, boldly and skillfully maneuvers among American, Soviet, and German agents. He even advocates for Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student caught on the East side of the Berlin Wall, to try to gain his freedom as well, for a two-for-one trade which further complicates the already Byzantine process.
Bridge of Spies is a handsomely mounted, thrilling spy story crowned with a fine performance from Tom Hanks, ably portraying the Spielbergian do-gooder triumphing against all odds, but without an ounce of corniness; instead a sly wit supports his affable screen presence. Mark Rylance delivers an equally fine performance as Abel, a purposely nondescript man committed to carrying out the duties assigned to him, gaining viewer sympathy from his unfailingly stoic attitude toward his eventual fate.
However, the true star here is the masterful filmmaking, which beautifully evokes an earlier era, not simply through its costumes and sets (the latter impressively designed by Adam Stockhausen, who also worked on The Grand Budapest Hotel), but its overall atmosphere. Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is a key contributor, his use of shadows and a noirish palette wonderfully evoking films from the era in which it is set; Bridge of Spies feels as if it could have been made in the 50s or 60s. This all adds up to what is one of Steven Spielberg's finest works.
Bridge of Spies opens in U.S. theaters on October 16.