Sunday, December 3, 2017

Don't Make a Scene: Bridge of Spies

The Story: A quick change-up from what was planned as this seems a bit more timely. There are a lot of negotiations that go on in Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg's film of the efforts by James B. Donovan to secure a prisoner exchange with the Russians for the release of Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 spy-plane pilot captured by the Soviets in 1960. Those negotiations are wordy, exact in their terms (at Donovan's insistence), and nuanced to the point of view that everything is negotiable to the letter of the law.

But what law? At any number of times during the proceedings, rules are broken, agreements are broken, addenda and riders tacked on and the situation is fluid, malleable, and in constant danger of failing. Not only that, it is closely watched and monitored by governments and their watch-dogs, spies in secret, who are looking out for the best interests of each other's governments and the "gamesmanship" of who can come out with the best results.

And that's trouble. That's where rules are ignored and proprieties slip which can endanger the negotiations, but also hedge whatever good can come of it with a lot of "bad."

But, not to Donovan. In this exchange, and there are quite a few good ones in Bridge of Spies, he lays out the rules to his own private "watch-dog" from the CIA, an agent named Hoffman, who will develop a complicated relationship that is mutually respectful, but mutually irritating. Both men will follow their own rules towards the end-goal, despite how counter-productive it might be to the other.

But, here, they are as adversarial as they get. Because the ground-rules haven't been laid out, and Donovan hasn't let on that 1) he won't be intimidated by power and 2) he won't be compromised by threats. He does that by letting the agent know the bottom line of what he measures his limits by, something that might be overlooked by the agent in his lines of inquiry. And that is absolute and it is resolute.

And it is a far cry from the current POV of government part-time-job-holders who think more like the agent than they do by the lawyer. In that regard, this scene and the current situation in Washington are very similar. 

They provide an education.

The Set-Up: James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) has had quite the day. Tasked with providing a defense for accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) by his legal firm, he has been rebuffed by the judge on the case for a delay of trial, not for any practical reason but because he wants the case rushed through for political expediency. Then, while walking home, Donovan has been followed, and not innocently and quite deliberately. Thinking that he has lost him, Donovan is surprised when he is confronted by the man, an agent for the CIA (Scott Shepard). Rather than have it out in the rain, the two retreat to a bar.


Donovan faces the man, looking at identification, which he hands back.
MAN Yeah. 
MAN Just wanted to chat. 
MAN How’s the case going?
DONOVAN The case is going great. Couldn’t be better.
MAN Uh-huh. Has your guy talked?
DONOVAN ...Excuse me?
MAN You met him, has he talked? Has he said anything yet?

Donovan stares at him. Then:
DONOVAN We’re not having this conversation.

The man nods agreeably.
MAN No, of course not.
DONOVAN No, I mean we’re really not having it. 
DONOVAN You’re asking me to violate attorney-client privilege.
MAN Oh c’mon counselor, you --
DONOVAN And I wish people like you would quit saying “Oh c’mon, counselor.” 
DONOVAN I didn’t like it the first time it happened today, a judge said it to me twice, and the more I hear it, the more I don’t like it.
MAN Ok, well listen, I understand attorney-client privilege. 
MAN I understand all the legal gamesmanship and I understand that that’s how you make a living. 
MAN But I’m talking to you about something else -- the security of your country. 
MAN I’m sorry if the way I put it offends you, but we need to know what Abel is telling you. 
MAN You understand me, Donovan? 
MAN We need to know. Don’t go Boy Scout on me -- 
MAN ...we don’t have a rule book here.
Donovan takes a beat, sizing the man up.
DONOVAN You’re agent Hoffman, yeah?
DONOVAN German extraction?
HOFFMAN Yeah, so?
DONOVAN My name is Donovan, Irish. Both sides, mother and father.
DONOVAN I’m Irish, you’re German, but what makes us both Americans? 
DONOVAN Just one thing, 
DONOVAN one one one. 
DONOVAN The rule book. 
DONOVAN We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans, it’s all that makes us Americans. 
DONOVAN So don’t tell me there’s no rule book and don’t nod at me like that you sonof...
DONOVAN ...abitch.
The man stops nodding and just looks at Donovan appraising him. 
Donovan smiles and gets up from the table, gathers his things.
HOFFMAN  Do we need to worry about you?
DONOVAN Not if I’m left alone 
DONOVAN do my job.
He grabs a peanut from the dish on the table and walks away as he pops it into his mouth.

Bridge of Spies

Words by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen

Pictures by Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg

Bridge of Spies is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Touchstone Home Entertainment.

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