The Cold War was coldest in Berlin. It was the flashpoint for everything in those tense years, and is the centerpiece of this movie.
The film begins in 1957 as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is captured by the FBI in New York. The Government wants to appear as if they’re giving him a fair trial and so Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer with a prestigious city law firm, is given the thankless assignment. He takes his work seriously, establishing a rapport with Abel, and quickly learns that there are many people who don’t want to give Abel too much of a defense. His motion to dismiss some of the evidence due to illegal search-and-seizure is denied by the judge, who is no fan of Soviet spies.
Jim’s family is affected by his case (vandals attack their home) but he persists in giving Abel his best. He even persuades the judge to set aside the death penalty and go for thirty years in prison instead, because Abel is valuable to the Russians and could be a bargaining chip in the future for a prisoner exchange, which is what happens after Francis Gary Powers, a U.S. pilot, is shot down over Russia during a U-2 flight in 1960.
Once again Jim Donovan is pegged to get the job done, and he goes to West Germany in February of 1962 to start negotiations with the Russians: exchange Abel for Powers. He also is determined to get American student Frederic Pryor from the East Germans in the deal. Pryor was taken into custody in East Berlin on a trumped-up charge after the Wall was built in August 1961.
The movie focuses on Donovan’s efforts during this delicate time, and we see the dreariness of the East Berlin landscape with its people living with World War II ruins and drab jobs, clothing, and political atmosphere. The contrast between West and East Berlin is sharp, as evoked by a scene in a West Berlin hotel as Jim orders a ‘big American breakfast’, which is literally a feast compared to what the East Germans must eat for breakfast.
Tom Hanks is excellent as idealistic lawyer Jim Donovan. His idealism doesn’t blind him to the fact that he’s playing power politics at its highest as he does his best to persuade both Russians and East Germans to get this deal done.
The film does a good job of evoking the era through clothes, cars, and attitudes. The fear of nuclear war hangs like a pall over everything. A scene is set in the classroom of Jim’s son, showing the ol’ ‘duck ‘n’ cover’ cartoon teaching kids to get under their desks in case of a nuclear attack. Naturally it wouldn’t have done them any good, but in an age when so many people felt so helpless, it was probably a psychological boost.
The Americans’ hostility toward Rudolf Abel is understandable. If you’re worried about nuclear war, why wouldn’t you be furious toward the man who slips the Soviets nuclear secrets? So while their attitudes are not very admirable they are understandable. I like how Spielberg did not sugarcoat American prejudice against Russians, nor did he show the Russians in an idealistic light, either.
There was something I couldn’t quite define about this movie after I left the theater. I enjoyed watching it and it’s inspired me to write some fanfic, The Luck O’ The Irish! :), but why was I so enthralled with it? Sure, I love period pieces, and stretched out into the New Frontier years, I’m thrilled! So why the extra boost?
Then it came to me: this movie had people talking to each other without cell phones ringing, texts blinging, and iPods singing. They actually paid attention to what their conversational partner was saying! There was intelligent discourse. The dialogue was not one constant stream of profanity. There were no car chases. There were no heads exploding. There were no buildings collapsing. Amazing, isn’t it? :)
I highly recommend this movie. If you like period pieces, go see it. If you are a Tom Hanks fan, go see it. If you like classy and stylish films, go see it.
I did see some people on the IMDB message board claiming this was an ‘old people’ movie because of it being set in the past. I guess that anything older than a week is passé with people like that, right? So the past is only for old people? History should never be appreciated in film form? Who ARE these people? Probably the same people who refuse to ever watch black-and-white movies and TV shows. Yeesh!