Review: Bridge of Spies
Reviewed as part of the NYFF 2015
PLOT: The true story of New York lawyer James Donovan, who in the span of a few years defended a Russian spy on U.S. soil and eventually used that spy as a bargaining chip to negotiate the return of two Americans captured during the Cold War.
REVIEW: My first thought after BRIDGE OF SPIES was over was, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks could have made this movie in their sleep. Not that that's good or bad, but the film is just so quintessentially them that there's nothing surprising or even necessarily engrossing about it. It's an OK movie, a pretty good one at times, but it certainly never reaches the heights that these two - when they're really on their game - are capable of. Although yes, of course it's better than THE TERMINAL.
Part of the reason for my semi-lukewarm response to the film is the subject matter itself. Don't get me wrong, in a historical context, the tale of lawyer James Donovan's efforts in Berlin to reclaim two American prisoners from the Russians at the height of the Cold War is important and fascinating. But as dramatized, Spielberg's treatment of the tale never sizzles or jumps off the screen, even with a script co-written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, in part because the particulars of the event aren't incredibly cinematic. A lot of negotiating behind-the-scenes, a lot of sitting around and waiting, a handful of moments of turmoil but all rather prosaic in terms of international intrigue. This is one of those true stories I imagine makes for a far more compelling documentary than it does a major motion picture.
As you'd expect from a Spielberg/Hanks collaboration, Hanks' character is presented as nothing less than a saint. Donovan was a simple insurance lawyer in Brooklyn when he was asked to defend the case of Rudolf Abel (played here very well by Mark Rylance), a Russian convicted of spying in 1957. Donovan was hired because he was a competent attorney, of course, but the idea was the give the case of Abel a rudimentary effort before his inevitable conviction. Donovan, a family man with principals, decided to give the case his all, even appealing to the Supreme Court after Abel was convicted. Donovan became something of a celebrity - and pariah - thanks to his nobility, but after the Abel case he attempted to get back to a normal life. But there was, naturally, more to come.
That's almost enough material for an entire movie, and indeed the first act of BRIDGE OF SPIES might be its most entertaining. The relationship that develops between Donovan and Abel is tense and terse at the start, but both men grow to enjoy each other's company. Abel isn't painted here as an insidious villain, but just another man doing a job (the movie makes it clear it's a job he's not very passionate about), and Rylance's performance is subtle, clever and fun to watch. Hanks is, well, playing Tom Hanks for all intents and purposes, but it's a role he's quite accustomed to; no one does noble everyman like Tom Hanks, and his James Donovan is a likable, uncomplicated, folksy sort of man. (Donovan's family, with Amy Ryan playing his wife, is more or less an afterthought.)
Donovan's dealings in the Cold War were far from concluded with the conviction of Abel. As if dictated by fate, the capture of two Americans - pilot Gary Powers and student Frederic Pryor - force the CIA to enlist Donovan to head to East Berlin where he's tasked with negotiating the release of Powers, who the government fears will be coerced into spilling U.S. secrets. (Pryor was less a priority for the government, but Donovan is shown going over their heads and lumping him into the deal, good man that he is.) The idea is that Abel will be released into the Russian's custody, while the U.S. gets back Powers and Pryor, with Donovan at the center, literally dictating on his own the fate of the world.
At this point, the film settles into a rhythm of Donovan's dealings with both the Russians and Germans, who are at odds with one another. Much running from here to there to negotiate is depicted, and while it's interesting to consider, it's not all that enjoyable. The screenplay has a handful of noticeable Coen Brothers touches - some scenes include dialogue that is very much them - but try as it might, the film never percolates. Even the finale, which takes place on the Glienicke Bridge (the eponymous Bridge of Spies) where the exchange goes down, just kind of sits there, sadly lacking tension when such a conclusion begs for excitement. It's possible that Spielberg and his screenwriters (British playwright Matt Charman penned the first draft) wanted to ensure that they didn't bring any unrealistic touches to the event, which is completely understandable, but as it is, we just watch things play out. That's how most of the movie feels; we're just watching the events unfold without being drawn into them.
Spielberg still knows what he's doing, of course. The film is always pretty as a postcard (he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski even manage to give a demolished East Berlin a certain picturesque sheen) and the director can still impress when he really puts his mind to it. A lengthy, wordless game of cat and mouse between Abel and the FBI at the film's beginning is a lot of fun, and noticeably "Spielbergian." The 1950s are brought to life in impeccable detail by the design team; the surroundings are never less than completely convincing. Thomas Newman's score is even very John Williams-esque (the latter missed out on his first Spielberg film in decades), with big themes predictably coming in to accentuate the heightened emotional moments.
Again, it's not that BRIDGE OF SPIES is a bad film; it's a fine one, but it's only just fine. It's rare Spielberg's movies aren't considered by me to be major events (he's directed at least three of my favorite movies of all time), but his latest isn't quite a "must see."
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