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Review: Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies
10.13.2015
100%
7 10

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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Source: JoBlo.com

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7:23PM on 10/05/2015
I thought The Terminal was great.
I liked it more than every movie he has made since. War Horse was pretty damn boring and do I have to bring up Indiana Jones 4.
I thought The Terminal was great.
I liked it more than every movie he has made since. War Horse was pretty damn boring and do I have to bring up Indiana Jones 4.
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3:03PM on 10/05/2015
Sounds like another Amistad type film, minus the heart tugging slave angle. I'm still eager to see this, as it's Spielberg and he's the one who jump started my lifelong obsession with movies. But I do feel like the film seems a bit tame. Also, the fact that this is a Spielberg film and there hasn't been a whole lot of hype for it, even when it was in production, is telling. His other projects have been getting more attention in pre-production, with Robopocalypse and The BFG getting more
Sounds like another Amistad type film, minus the heart tugging slave angle. I'm still eager to see this, as it's Spielberg and he's the one who jump started my lifelong obsession with movies. But I do feel like the film seems a bit tame. Also, the fact that this is a Spielberg film and there hasn't been a whole lot of hype for it, even when it was in production, is telling. His other projects have been getting more attention in pre-production, with Robopocalypse and The BFG getting more attention. But one thing I really like about Spielberg is that he is willing to make a movie about events like this, things that might otherwise seem boring, and turn them into cinematic events. Even if this isn't a very exciting film, it's one that a lot of people will see. At the very least, after seeing it, I will have learned something.
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2:20PM on 10/05/2015
OK Spielberg, time to go back to the action adventure movies. I don't mind his dramatic films but IMO, this film looks boring. He has been playing it safe for a good part of the last decade. Time to make some kick ass movies again.
OK Spielberg, time to go back to the action adventure movies. I don't mind his dramatic films but IMO, this film looks boring. He has been playing it safe for a good part of the last decade. Time to make some kick ass movies again.
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1:58PM on 10/05/2015
"...an OK movie" seems to be what Spielberg has been going for the past decade or so. He really needs to snap out of this slumber of uninspiredness.
"...an OK movie" seems to be what Spielberg has been going for the past decade or so. He really needs to snap out of this slumber of uninspiredness.
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1:14PM on 10/05/2015
If they filmed Tom Hanks sitting at the breakfast table reading the back of a cereal box, I would go see it. He is the only actor that I would pay to go see simply because he's in it.
If they filmed Tom Hanks sitting at the breakfast table reading the back of a cereal box, I would go see it. He is the only actor that I would pay to go see simply because he's in it.
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12:39PM on 10/05/2015
My thought when I saw the trailer for this movie, "the music makes it seem way more epic than I'm sure it is". I also thought it seemed like it had very high bore potential. Something that Hollywood would tell me I should care about because of the names involved. Movies have to be enjoyable though. I love Spielberg and Hanks (two of my all time faves), but I don't go to the movies to watch a bunch of dramatized political back and forth, I have the news for that. I agree that some movies should
My thought when I saw the trailer for this movie, "the music makes it seem way more epic than I'm sure it is". I also thought it seemed like it had very high bore potential. Something that Hollywood would tell me I should care about because of the names involved. Movies have to be enjoyable though. I love Spielberg and Hanks (two of my all time faves), but I don't go to the movies to watch a bunch of dramatized political back and forth, I have the news for that. I agree that some movies should just get the documentary format.
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11:46AM on 10/05/2015
It's ironic the reviewer said negatively that there's, "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." .... But of course there's a lot of that ...... that's the plot of the movie, to negotiate the release of Americans. I'm still excited to see this. SS and T Hanks are always a must see for me.
It's ironic the reviewer said negatively that there's, "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." .... But of course there's a lot of that ...... that's the plot of the movie, to negotiate the release of Americans. I'm still excited to see this. SS and T Hanks are always a must see for me.
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