Year Released: 2015
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance
(PG-13, 135 min.)
Genre: Historical Drama, Mystery and Suspense
“The reward of a thing well-done is to have done it.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Despite its length, this “spy thriller” is lean – light on melodrama, smoky dark room dealings, or cloak and dagger shenanigans. The real enemies are the cold, the damp, and the blind alleys of self-serving bureaucrats.
Its hero is as reluctant as he is unlikely. James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance lawyer burdened with the task of defending a Russian spy caught on our turf. He will be given a fair trial, but the evidence is pretty overwhelming and no one expects Donovan to win. Perhaps that is why they have chosen an insurance lawyer rather than a criminal attorney to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).
“Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose,” Donovan consoles himself.
Part of Tom Hanks’ brilliance and durability as an actor is how he is able to play ordinary men, yet bring out something extraordinary in them.
We saw that in his poignant portrayal of the Fed Ex deliveryman in Cast Away, where we not only accepted his talking to a soccer ball, but actually grieved with him when it floated beyond his grasp out to sea. Or the common decency as the kind hearted jailer Hanks played in The Green Mile.
His heroics, if we can call them that, are nuanced. But they are significant. In Spielberg’s film, Hanks is assisted by the character of the spy that he defends. And even this old cold warrior is not immune to Abel’s charm, brought out in Rylance’s ironic humor. With the death sentence staring him down, Donovan is perplexed by his client’s calm:
James Donovan: Aren't you worried?
Rudolf Abel: Would it help?
Rudolf Abel is no traitor. He is loyal to his country, the Soviet Union, doing what he thinks is right. I am doing the same as many of your citizens are doing in my country, he explains to Donovan. There is no way he will flip to the American side, getting immunity and a very comfortable in the bargain.
That decision earns a grudging respect from Donovan, and he does more than the perfunctory job everyone expected from him. It is largely due to him that Abel gets imprisonment rather than death. Maybe we will have one of our spies caught sometime, he tells the judge who will decide sentencing. Wouldn’t it be wise to have someone we can trade?
That observation proves prescient sooner rather than later, when Gary Francis Powers, the pilot of our U-2 spy plane is shot down in the USSR. Here the films takes some liberties with the time frame, making the 4 years between the Russian spy’s capture and the spy exchange for Powers seem like a matter of months rather than years. In reality, Powers was actually in a Soviet prison for 2 years.
It is the second half of the film, where the actual negotiations and exchange take place, that things get interesting. Of course, we have none of the 007’s hijinks, nor Richard Burton’s unflinching portrait of moral compromise from The Spy Who Came inform the Cold.
A seasoned operative our insurance lawyer is not, but he does somehow manage to dance around all the duplicitous parties trying to pull his strings in a very cold and hostile Berlin.
Spielberg, probably with some help from the Coen brothers who helped script the film, is able to paint Berlin in Alice in Wonderland surrealistic hues. The swap is really between the USA and the USSR, but no one can say that officially.
The Russian spy’s tearful “wife” and “daughter” who meet Donovan at the embassy are strangers acting the part, and the “lawyer” representing them is in reality the head of the KGB. Also interesting is the political gamesmanship by an East German government that wants to come out from the Soviet shadow and up their own prestige by making demands of their own.
Our side is equally cynical and self-serving. They stay at the best hotel while Donovan fights the cold in miserable quarters. At the last minute, they send him off to his meeting all alone instead of accompanying Donovan as promised. And things are so dicey in Berlin at that time that Donavan actually gets mugged walking to the embassy.
He also gets a pretty vivid picture of what East Berlin looked like in 1962. The bombed out buildings left over from the war stand in mute testimony to the deliberate neglect in the Soviet sector. Spielberg also gives us a front row seat to the construction of the infamous Berlin Wall. We watch the soldiers erecting it before our eyes, each piece a stark reminder of the rigid system that had to wall its people in. With the exception of 2006’s The Lives of Others, which was actually a German film, this is a rare glimpse of communist oppression from Hollywood.
Just like Ton Hanks’ insurance lawyer, there is nothing flashy in this film. It offers insight into a relatively modest event in history, but does so with an unerring sense of decency that is both quiet and true. A decency that burns bright in the hands of the two outstanding leads.
Not to miss for discriminating viewers.
While he is in Berlin negotiating the spy exchange, James Donovan has his overcoat stolen by a gang of thugs and sleeps in a ratty cheap hotel with little of no heat. He even spends the night in an East German cell, which he says is not really that much worse than his hotel room.
No wonder he is so starved that he orders not one but two breakfasts when he breaks protocol and ventures to the Ritz hotel’s restaurant the next day. Alas, just as the crowd of overflowing plates arrives at his table, a new twist in the negotiations forces him to leave.
So let’s cook him our own suitably filling German breakfast. This one is called Bauernfruhstuck, or German Farmer’s Breakfast, and it is overflowing with an abundance of potatoes, bacon, eggs, and ham. Yum!
German Farmer's Breakfast
This is known as German Farmers Breakfast. It's very filling and very good. Key ingredients include potatoes, bacon, ham and tomatoes.
- 4 medium potatoes
- 4 strips of bacon - chopped
- 3 large eggs
- 3 Tablespoons milk
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup ham - cooked and cubed
- 2 medium tomatoes - peeled
- 1 Tablespoon chives - finely chopped
Boil unpeeled potatoes 30 minutes. Rinse under cold water, peel and set aside to cool. Slice potatoes when cooled.
In a large skillet, cook bacon until white parts become transparent. Add the potato slices; cook until lightly browned.
Meanwhile, blend eggs with milk and salt. Stir in the cubed ham. Cut the tomatoes into thin wedges; add to the egg mixture.
Pour the egg mixture over the potatoes in the skillet. Cook until the eggs are set.
Sprinkle with chopped chives and serve immediately.