The cold war revisited in ‘Bridge of Spies’ and the adventures of a 100-year-old man

Tom Hanks stars in "Bridge of Spies" as a lawyer defending a Russian agent during the Cold War. —Courtesy bridgeofspies.com

Director Steven Spielberg teams up with filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (revising Matt Charman’s script) to create a compelling espionage thriller, “Bridge of Spies,” which plays this week at the Capawock Theater and Entertainment Cinemas. Next week, one of last month’s International Film Festival favorites, “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared,” returns to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center.

In “Bridge of Spies” Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance make this dark film a winner.

The thriller opens with Russian agent Rudolf Abel, played by Rylance, who excelled as Thomas Cromwell in PBS’s “Wolf Hall,” gazing at himself in a mirror as he finishes painting a self-portrait. We follow him to the Manhattan Bridge, where he sets up an easel, and removes a nickel containing secret code from under his park bench. Back in his hotel room, this meticulous man uses a razor blade wrapped in a matchbook to slice open the coin and retrieve its message. Soon the quiet of his hotel room explodes with American C.I.A. agents who have come to arrest Abel, who appears with Coen-style humor in his underwear.

Insurance lawyer James Donovan, played with stolid charm by Hanks, enters the story when he is asked to defend Abel. The year is 1957, at the height of the cold war, making the captured Russian spy a public pariah and the lawyer almost equally disliked for defending him. The courtroom scenes in “Bridge of Spies” demonstrate Donovan’s determination to give his client the same representation he would an American. In a sense, the American justice system is on trial along with Abel.

Almost immediately noticeable in Spielberg’s film are its flat lighting and gray palette. The men — Amy Ryan, playing Donovan’s wife, is almost the only representative of the distaff side — look meaty and somber in baggy suits and fedoras. The world in “Bridge of Spies” is grim and unappealing. The Abel case proceeds all the way to the Supreme Court, and Donovan keeps his client from being executed.

In a parallel plot, American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is trained to photograph Soviet installations, and he has his own coin. But instead of containing a secret code, it provides him with the poison to kill himself if caught. His plane is shot down, and he doesn’t die but ends up in a Russian prison.

Donovan is tapped by the C.I.A. to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Just to complicate the plot and illustrate the lawyer’s solid American values, Donovan insists on including in the exchange an American student caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall and imprisoned by the East Germans. The prisoner swap in Berlin becomes a three-way push-pull, with tension between the Soviets and East Germany as well as the Soviets and the U.S.

All this complicated cold war history should remind the audience that the U.S.-Russian tensions (leading to the current conflict in Syria being called a proxy war) have parallels in the past. Director Spielberg suggests that the bad guys, once called denizens of an evil empire by Ronald Reagan, were not so different from the good-guy Americans in the way they executed their spying shenanigans. It’s a lesson that could be applied today.

The adventures of a 100-year-old man

May we all be as agile and Teflon-coated lucky as Allan Karlsson in the loony Swedish comedy that is “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.”

Allan, played by well-known Swedish actor Robert Gustafsson, lands in a nursing home after he blows up the fox that killed his beloved cat Molotov. On his birthday, Allan decides to escape, as the title explains, rather than face a party complete with giant marzipan cake. He makes his way to the local bus station for a getaway. There he meets a skinhead biker who foists a suitcase on him to hold while in a rush to the loo. Allan departs with the suitcase in hand.

Once he gets off the bus, he befriends Julius (Iwar Wiklander), and when the two pry open the suitcase, they find $50 million in cash. Meanwhile, the movie folds in multiple flashbacks explaining Allan’s youth and love of explosions, as well as the many fantastic experiences that take place over his 100-year lifespan. Like the hero of Woody Allen’s classic film “Zelig,” Allan is paired with numerous world figures, including Franco, Stalin, Truman, Reagan, Gorbachev, and Robert Oppenheimer. After one of numerous apparently accidental killings, Allan and Julius hop a railroad cart with one of their victims, the first of several bumbling hoodlums trying to retrieve their money. Among the misadventures narrated in flashback are a mental hospital stay, sterilization, bridge explosions, and time in the gulag. Chief police inspector Aronsson (Ralph Carlsson) starts tracking Allan and his cohorts without much success. The past accomplishments of the 100-year-old man include solving a plutonium problem in the Manhattan Project, and spying simultaneously for the C.I.A. and the Russians.

The movie piles on one more incredible incident after another. Allan and Julius hitch a ride with indecisive Benny (David Wiberg), who has almost finished easily a dozen academic degrees. They end up at the rural home of Gunilla (Mia Skaringer), who keeps a pet elephant, Sonja. The movie quite ingeniously ties together the highly improbable events in Allan’s long life, and if the litany of incidents as long or longer than the movie’s title don’t exhaust you, you’ll enjoy this silly celebration of a centenarian with an amazing past and present.

“Bridge of Spies,” Thursday, Oct. 22, 6:30 pm; Friday, Oct. 23, and Sunday, Oct. 25, 6 pm; Saturday, Oct. 24, 8:45 pm at the Capawock Theater. Thursday Oct. 22, 3:30 and 6:30 pm at Entertainment Cinemas. “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared,” Friday, Oct. 30, 7:30 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center.