Movie Review: Bridge of Spies
Cold War thriller warmed over: Tom Hanks shuffles his favourite deck of characters to take on the role of a real life insurance lawyer who ends up tangled in the concertina wire of East-West tensions
Bridge of Spies
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 141 minutes
MPAA Rating: Parental Guidance
By Katherine Monk
How Steven Spielberg went from the king of summer thrills to the most boring director in Hollywood is a problem that’s perplexed me since I pried my eyes open through Lincoln.
We all know the man can make a great movie. Most of us grew up on a diet of E.T., Jaws and Indiana Jones: spectacular event films with all the entertainment oomph of a theme park roller coaster.
Then, Spielberg hit middle age and wanted to make important films for grown-ups. He made Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich, but he also made Minority Report, A.I and War of the Worlds – pretty decent action films with big star power.
It looked like Spielberg had come of age with a sharpened skill set and a slightly deeper world view, but the more high-brow Spielberg gets, the duller his movies become.
War Horse was a dreary slog through the trenches of the First World War. Lincoln was earnest, sincere, and a cure for sleeplessness, and Bridge of Spies is about as exciting as Lincoln, only without the Civil War.
Inspired by real life events, and apparently a footnote in a JFK biography, Bridge of Spies tells the story of an insurance attorney named James Donovan. A mild-mannered family man plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting, Donovan is as American as the flag itself – and it’s a trait he waves at every opportunity, from gratuitous speeches about the American Constitution to his acceptance of a case he is destined to lose.
In the opening act, we watch an older man (Mark Rylance) take his easel on the subway, sit in the park and paint, and very carefully remove a fake nickel from the underside of a park bench. The nickel is hollow, and written on a tiny piece of paper within, is a series of codes.
The man’s name is Rudolf Abel, and he’s arrested for treason and espionage just a few moments later. Given the year is 1957, Abel’s fate looks bleak. The Rosenbergs were executed just four years earlier after being convicted of similar charges, and Abel refuses to cooperate with the CIA, making him delectably disposable.
These days, he’d probably just disappear, but back then, America still believed its own propaganda and the notion of due process. It must appear as if Abel is getting a fair and just trial, which is where James Donovan comes in.
A respected member of the bar who will be able to transcend the bad press associated with defending a communist, Donovan is assigned the dubious task of representing the would-be painter and as a result, Bridge of Spies’ first act unfolds like a courtroom drama, with one big difference: The outcome of the case is immaterial. Abel is convicted, but Donovan is adamant he doesn’t receive the death penalty because he’s come to admire the strange man who refuses to get emotional. Every time Donovan asks him if he’s nervous, Abel offers the same deadpan reply: “Would it help?”
The other benefit of keeping Abel alive is his value as a prisoner: He could be exchanged for an American if the need arose, and that’s exactly what happens when a U-2 spy plane is shot down over the USSR and pilot Francis Gary Powers is put on trial in Moscow.
Donovan is eventually tasked with making the exchange happen, which means a regular fellow is suddenly knee-deep in spy land, and Hanks is given full permission to pull out every astonished and slightly terrified look in his arsenal of acting. He offers the look of deep, human concern from Saving Private Ryan, the arched eyebrows of surprise from Forrest Gump, and the officious phone booth expression and period dress of Catch Me if You Can.
It feels a little like a greatest hits album, but the scenes with Mark Rylance have real pop. The two men have an interesting dynamic as ideological warriors who landed on different sides of the battlefield, and it’s the only part of the film that has any real traction because everyone else is locked in a freezer of Cold War archetype.
Spielberg capitalizes on the common ground, offering up timely and inspirational rhetoric concerning the importance of due process, Constitutional rights and freedoms, and the American way, but like Lincoln, the big speeches have all the subtlety of a Broadway musical.
And maybe, just maybe, that would have been a more entertaining way to go. We could have had scenes of Tom Hanks singing “Wall! They built a Wall!” on the streets of Berlin and Abel chanting “I’m a spy, but a nice guy….”
Absurd? Perhaps, but it probably would have worked because Spielberg’s overall tone is so heavy and leaden, it would have benefited from a little modulation. It also would have given all those big speeches about American values the appropriate voice – a full-throated holler, filled with wide-eyed belief.
Sadly, the only music we get is the Thomas Newman (Cinderella Man, Jarhead) score, welling up at every sloppy moment like an emotionally volatile relative at a family dinner.
Spielberg no doubt figured any script co-penned by the Coen brothers was going to work some intellectual magic, but the words and the mise-en-scene have absolutely no chemistry. If the Coens were going for a black comedy about Cold War spies and the presence of an ordinary insurance lawyer negotiating the release of political prisoners, they didn’t tell Spielberg, who brings his entire toy box and his big book of war history to the game.
Using an epic shooting style that goes for low angles, moving approach shots and precise historic tableaux of Germany following the war, Bridge of Spies is a true achievement in filmmaking, and yet, a total bore.
Hanks does a masterful job playing the regular guy in an extraordinary position, but that’s what he always does. Whether he’s playing the simpleton Forrest Gump or the astronaut Jim Lovell, Hanks uses his bashful grin like a switchblade, slicing open the belly of the box-office beast with a steaming display of heart.
It’s his thing. Just like Hollywood schmaltz is Spielberg’s thing and subversive examinations of America are the Coens’ thing. But as good as these things are, they don’t go together. A Coen brothers script in Spielberg’s hands is like teaching Dostoevsky in kindergarten. You get the basic shape of narrative events, and maybe some awesome illustrations, but there’s no poetry – or memorable sense of purpose.
Bridge of Spies opens wide October 16