BRIDGE OF SPIES Movie Review – A Mostly Successful Historical Thriller
In Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg brings us the story of James B. Donovan, a lawyer who took on the defense of Rudolf Abel, a Soviet Spy, in the late 1950s and then acted as negotiator between the U.S. government and the Soviets for the exchange of that spy for Francis Gary Powers, a U2 pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union. Part legal drama, part spy thriller, Bridge of Spies is a mostly successful film that explores what it means to be American when it is perhaps inconvenient to hold ourselves to the standards we have collectively set forth for ourselves as spelled out in the Constitution. Beautifully shot, expertly acted, and slyly written (at times), Bridge of Spies is a worthy film and a must see for history buffs.
The film opens with a tense, dialogue-free foot chase and then the arrest of Rudolf Abel on charges of being a Soviet spy. Abel is played by Mark Rylance in a very humane, naturalistic performance. Rylance plays Abel as an intelligent, thoughtful man caught up in a circumstance beyond his control. Quickly we’re introduced to James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks (you know him from being Tom Hanks). Hanks’ first scene is a genius bit of writing. We’re introduced to him as he is verbally sparring with a rival attorney in an insurance case. Donovan spends the scene parsing out the language of the case. He’s clearly got the upper hand and, as a negotiator, is formidable. From here we follow Donovan to a meeting with a fellow partner in his law firm where he finds out he’s been chosen by his peers to represent Abel and act as his defense attorney. This being the Cold War, and anti-communist, anti-Soviet sentiments being what they are, Donovan is understandably cautious. Against the wishes of his wife, played here by Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, Birdman) who’s unfortunately given very little to do, Donovan takes the case.
Predictably, the trial doesn’t go well for Donovan. He tries his best to defend Abel the way he would any other client, but he is constantly second guessed and looked down upon for his efforts. His client is a spy for gosh-darn-sake! Why wouldn’t you just do the bare minimum!? Donovan is ridiculed and stared at on the subway, especially when he appeals Abel’s conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the same time this trial and subsequent appeal is going on, we get cross cuts to the story of Francis Gary Powers— his recruitment, training, and ultimate deployment as a U2 spy plane pilot. He is, spoilers for history and real life and something I already said in the first paragraph, shot down over the Soviet Union and taken prisoner. The U.S. and the Soviet Union now each have one of each other’s spies in custody. This is where Donovan comes back in. He is recruited to negotiate the swap. Donovan is whisked away to Berlin (West and East) to make the deal happen.
The rest of the film follows the negotiations, with Donovan acting as go between, navigating the wants/needs of several parties including the East Germans, the Soviet Union, the CIA, and the United States. Unsurprisingly, none of these parties’ needs are in perfect alignment, so there is some maneuvering to be done. It is in this second half to two thirds of the film where the movie really finds its footing and becomes a really great film. Hanks is spectacular as Donovan. Wry, intelligent, empathetic—Hanks has found a role that perfectly mixes his everyman quality with the harsher, more sarcastic persona he’s tried for in films like Catch Me If You Can and You’ve Got Mail. Donovan isn’t a harsh man, but he’s intelligent and not afraid to let others know that he’s smarter than them.
The sequences in East and West Berlin are tense. Donovan really has no idea who he will be talking to at each meeting and what will be demanded of him. The Cold War paranoia is palpable. This is enhanced by Janusz Kaminski’s camera. There are quite a few hand-held sequences that are just terrific. Kaminski and Spielberg do conspire, at least a few times, to treat us to some of their all too familiar over-exposed, over saturated images. They work ok here. It’s not as overwhelming as it was in Minority Report, but also not as effective as it was in something like Saving Private Ryan or Munich.
If Bridge of Spies goes wrong anywhere, it does so in its first third, during Donovan’s defense of Rudolf Abel. Abel was arrested for being a secret Soviet agent, living in the United States, and…well, we’re not sure. Or at least the movie doesn’t tell us. There’s a clever bit of business involving a trick coin and a piece of paper that just screams SPY STUFF IS HAPPENING NOW! But never once does the film give us any indication of what type of information Rudolph Abel was sending to the Soviets or what impact that might have had on national security. At some point somebody mentions something about nuclear secrets, but I’m not sure how he could be doing this since the only thing the movie ever shows him doing is painting stuff (like bridges and self-portraits). This becomes a particular problem as Spielberg begins to cross cut between Abel’s trial and the recruitment and training of Francis Gary Powers, played by Austin Stonewall (he was also in last year’s superb Whiplash).
These aren’t just your usual cross cuts between progress in the trial and progress in Powers’ training, these cross cuts are frequently made on matching action or on tricky match cuts between similar looking props. Spielberg is drawing an explicit line between Abel and Powers, and why not? They’re both spies right? They both even have their own special coin! The problem is, while we see specifically what Powers will be up to when flying over the Soviet Union, we don’t know ANY of the specifics about what Abel was up to. As presented in the film he’s a kind of a harmless old man with a wry smile and a good sense of humor. We are never once introduced to anything sinister he might have done or what the implications his spying might have had on the United States. As a result, every time Hanks tries to extoll the virtues of the Constitution or explain why he is defending Abel to the letter of the law, it just feels schlocky and easy. Why wouldn’t we defend this guy? He’s nice! I’m not suggesting that Spielberg and Mark Rylance should have crafted a character who was so arch he’s literally twisting his moustache, I think it’s interesting that he’s a nice guy here, BUT, the drama in this part of the story is that even though Abel is a dangerous spy who is working to endanger the United States, Donovan is going to stick by the principles set forth in the Constitution that every person deserves due process of law and a competent defense. That idea is not only compelling in its own right, but it has real world echoes in situations happening around us today AND it’s an idea that will come in to play further along in the film. This only works though if we actually establish that Abel is a danger to the United States. It never does and thus these scenes have an after school special kind of vibe.
I consider this a major weakness, and missed opportunity in the film. Luckily, it’s just a 20-30 minute section of the film. Otherwise, there’s a lot of really great stuff going on here, like the writing. The above complaints are almost all about the writing (and possibly editing) of the film, which is a shame, because absent those complaints, the script is really good. It was written initially by Matt Charman and then rewritten (?) or punched up (?) by Joel and Ethan Coen. I hesitate to try to guess who wrote what in the script, but, there’s some really great writing going on in places here that, at least to me, really screamed of the Coens’ influence. There’s a lot of humor in this film as well as some extended sequences of verbal sparring during the negotiations. A lot of this stuff has an ironic, self-deprecating sense to it that feels to me like it has the hand of the Coens in it. Regardless of who wrote what, it’s good and makes the film very entertaining, especially in the second half.
There are also a handful of supporting performances that are quite good. Peter McRobbie (we saw him as the creepy grandpa in The Visit this year) has a wonderful scene as Allen Dulles. Dominick Lombardozzi (an alum of The Wire) plays the FBI agent who arrests Rudolf Abel. We also get some scenes with Alan Alda who is just terrific and is shamefully underused in today’s movies. I mentioned Amy Ryan earlier. She gets very little to do in this film other than look worried a lot, but even in these scenes she’s terrific. She’s just one of those actresses that elevates every piece of material she’s given.
Overall, I’d say Bridge of Spies is a good to very good-ish film. Because of the first third, I think it’s likely to be regarded as a second tier Spielberg film, which is unfortunate because most everything else about this film has Spielberg operating in Munich territory, which I think is one of his very best films. Basically everything after Donovan gets to East/West Berlin works really well, everything that comes before—not so much. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. But go anyway. Go for Hanks, go for Alan Alda, and of course, go for Janusz!
Bridge of Spies opens everywhere this Friday.