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This review was originally published on Liveforfilms.com
For fans expecting hard edged espionage, a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spielberg, adjust expectations accordingly. Light in tone and laced with comedy—a machination of the Coen Brothers’ contributions to Matt Charman’s screenplay, no doubt—Bridge of Spies shares the same broad entertainment as last year’s spy movie The Imitation Game. Instead of Alan Turing and code deciphering spy games, Bridge of Spies credibly recreates the cold war tensions of the 1950s. Two spies, the downed spy plane pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and Russian agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an undercover on American soil, are set to be swapped. With relationships between the United States, Russia, and East Berlin coming to an intense boil, the stakes are high: if this deal goes badly, it could mean nuclear war.
To facilitate the delicate trade in East Berlin is aw shucks and the American Way Tom Hanks, playing the smart and swift insurance lawyer James Donovan—a character so folksy, innately patriotic, and kind spirited that in the same way Ethan Hunt is indistinguishable from Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks is perceptually inseparable from James Donovan. Only Tom Hanks can command the needed level of believable optimism for Donovan without missing a beat, and his shoulders, proverbially made of red, white, and blue, muscle through this disjointed, uneven, but nonetheless engaging movie.
Sadly Spies isn’t just similar to The Imitation Game in their shared interest in pleasing an audience—a goal they’re pretty good at—but in the exact way that they go about it. To the frustration of historical purists, each movie reduces a morally complex, tragic story into what ultimately boils into feel-good fun. This is all the more inexplicable in how, in the case of Spies at least, the rest of the movie’s style vividly clashes with the serious subject matter (an incoherence especially obvious next to Janusz Kaminski’s grim, monochrome cinematography) as well as next to darkest moments of the script—including a massacre of a family (politely) filmed from afar. Life around the Berlin Wall was prolifically brutal. This is a dark story in which Spielberg has turned the lights on, an error that no amount of snappy direction can forgive. For the world’s most famous and loved director, one persistent flaw is how so many of his movies struggled to finish on the appropriate note, like the contrived uplift endings of Minority Report or War of the Worlds. Bridge of Spies extends this widely-written-about flaw to the entire movie.
Whip-pans in tone are a chronic issue, alternating between physical comedy, stoned faced discussions of bureaucratic red tape, and the mildest torture scenes this side of a Reservoir Dogs, and back again with seconds in between. The effect keeps Spies interesting but notably on wobbly ground—shifts in tone are more like slamming on the breaks than effortlessly changing gears, a jarring effect only rectified in the well calibrated final act. Also holding back Spies is a marked lack of development for any character beyond Donovan and Abel, whose relationship is rich and complex, and Rylance gives a powerful understated performance to compellingly foil Hanks’ talky charm. They are the soul, the lifeblood, and the heart. The rest of the cast are fine but forgotten, namely American spy Gary Powers himself. With the cold war itself abstract and psychological, obscuring the stakes from direct conflict to indirect threats, I can’t imagine something worse for a movie that’s entirely about saving an American spy than having that very American spy be a vague character in a vague war.
Similarly without the characteristic depth of Spielberg movies, Spies proposes hints of ethical quandary when the particulars of the trade are called into question. You wonder who deserves to be traded more than whom, and why, and how one calculates ethical probabilities around which spy did or didn’t talk to which government (something, perhaps, perfectly suited for an insurance lawyer, whose day job is to calculate projected unknowns). However, the drastic optimism of Donavan’s character amounts to whitewash bought and paid for, which when applied by Spielberg with a paint roller that’s both wide and thick, those questions stop from lingering too long. The moral ambiguity around the trade might interest you—it does not, however, interest the unwavering, resolute, determined golden moral core of James Donovan. What could have been parabolic to the war in the Middle East is now merely a good man stuffed into a situation in which he doesn’t belong, an unwavering light in a web of shadows.
It must be said, though, that he is the easiest type of character to root for, and doesn’t for one second seem stupid or simple. His sense of right and wrong initially presents itself in the first third of Spies, where he proudly stands as Abel’s defense lawyer, even while the American people are unsympathetically portrayed as McArthurist biggots and slander him and his family. And, also admittedly, the Everest height of his moral high ground amazingly doesn’t make him a one-noted soap box for moral blubbering. We meet him executing the same lawyerly double talk he uses on Berlin and Russia to expedite the trade, and his talent for talking his way in, around, and through people’s heads—a Machiavellian maneuver for the greater good—is sometimes riveting to watch.
While there are indeed spy games, including the terrific cold open that’s one of the best sequences of Spielberg’s career, Bridge of Spies is more of a courtroom drama that went on a bad vacation. Donovan’s mastery of rhetoric begins from his first scene and continues all the way to East Berlin, proven by an unusual kind of plot hole. While framed poorly and confusingly implemented, what seems like a plot oversight at first isn’t a plot hole at all—it’s simply Donovan using his pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword tongue to slash through foreign diplomats. He’s talking around the heads of these guys so effortlessly our heads get talked around a little too, but Hanks plays it with enough overt confidence that we believe in him anyway.
So, in lieu of the courtroom-on-the-go shape of Spies, what we don’t have are the intricate plots of John Le Carre or the propulsive pulp of AMC’s The Americans. Instead, it’s Hanks winning as Donovan, Michael Kahn’s adventurous, circuitous editing—like a slow fade of one spy on the left hand of the image to another spy taking up the right side—and Spielberg’s masterclass in film craft. Following up his beautiful restraint on 2012s quiet but powerful Lincoln, he exercises the same careful control over his camera, the edit, but most of all the sound. Bridge of Spies might have fewer raised voices than Lincoln. This is a hushed sort of film, one where its hero almost never raises his voice and the stately tone slowly allows the story’s power to creep up on you, naturally and with care. For that reason, the climax rallies. Uneven beginnings make way for a resonant finish.
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