Running with Mr Spielberg

A RELAXED Sunday sort of blog today. Cerys Matthews on the radio, laptop resting on post-run legs as I sit on the sofa in the conservatory.

One of my running friends passed on a magazine dedicated to putting one foot in front of the other at some speed. My eyes skated over the glossy pages and the advice. One feature asked if you were fit enough to run. The writer suggested doing all sorts of exercises and then scoring yourself.

I didn’t bother, just put on the running shoes instead. What appeals to me about running is its simplicity. My own rules are straightforward: if it’s Sunday I need to get out there for an hour or so. That’s about it. I always listen to music. The iPod is on shuffle. Some days my feet are on shuffle too. But I always do the pavement rounds.

As I ran I thought about the new Steven Spielberg film, Bridge Of Spies, which has much to recommend it, not least great storytelling, smart un-cynical filmmaking and a couple of superb performances. This is a Cold War story based on true events from 1962, and it is mostly uplifting, lacking the sort of John le Carré weary cynicism often associated with the genre.

Tom Hanks plays a homey, everyman lawyer called James Donovan who is first hired to defend the Russian spy Rudolf Abel, a job that leads to widespread hate from the general public, even to the point of his house being sprayed with bullets.

Donovan is later asked to do a one-man mission to the newly divided Berlin, passing over to the eastern side to arrange a prisoner exchange between Abel and Gary Powers, the U2 spy-plane pilot captured by the Soviets. While he is there, Donovan takes it on himself to include in the exchange an American student named Frederic Pryor who had been wrongfully imprisoned in East Berlin, after darting through the almost finished wall to reach his girlfriend.

After the trial in the US, much of the film is taken up with Donovan’s miserable adventures in East Berlin as he attempts to carry off the torturous negotiations, while struggling with a cold, homesickness and having his coat stolen.

This all builds up to the prison exchange in a snowy dawn on Glienecke Bridge from East to West Berlin, the bridge of the film’s title, and a last-minute wrangle over the exchange.

Spielberg heightens the tension in a series of negotiations undertaken in bad faith in dull rooms and fuelled by whisky or brandy. Almost everything about the film works tremendously well: the tension builds slowly yet remorselessly, and the film looks fantastic.

At the heart of it all are two wonderful performances. Tom Hanks plays Donovan, a man guided by a stubborn sense of good that will not be deflected by last-minute hitches or the devious ways of sour Soviet bureaucracy – or indeed gung-ho American narrow-mindedness.

Hanks is beautifully matched against Mark Rylance as Abel, the spy who goes back into the cold. Rylance holds the eye and touches the heart, even though he isn’t given much to say and his character remains an enigma. In a nice running joke, at various stages Donovan asks Abel if he isn’t worried about the possibility of a death penalty, the exchange going wrong or some other calamity. Each time he says “Would it help?” in a wonderful bit of deadpanning. The Coen Brothers, heroes on this ledge of mine, have a writing credit which perhaps explain the humorous moments (and Abel’s pretend East Berlin family surely).

I could have done without the last ten minutes when the sentimentality is spread too thickly, but then it is a Spielberg film. And a very good one too.

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