BRIDGE OF SPIES
2015, PG-13, 135 mins.
2015, PG-13, 135 mins.
Tom Hanks as James Donovan / Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel / Austin Stowell as Francis Gary Powers / Amy Ryan as Mary Donovan / Alan Alda as Thomas Watters / Eve Hewson as Jan Donovan / Billy Magnussen as Doug Forrester / Greg Nutcher as Lieutenant James
Directed by Steven Spielberg / Written by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers
Considering the powerhouse team of director Steven Spielberg, star Tom Hanks, and the Coen Brothers as screenwriters, the Cold War spy thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES should have been a proverbial grand slam home run for all involved.
disappointingly, the historically grounded film is more of a confidently
staged and workmanlike production for all involved than a masterstroke
work. Boasting immaculate cinematography, a reliably solid lead
performance by Hanks, remarkable period detail, and some compelling
thematic material, BRIDE OF SPIES is a rock solid evocation of a bygone
political era featuring super powers waging cerebral battles in offices
and conference rooms. As a
work of stirring drama, though, the film sort of tepidly holds itself back
from potential greatness.
OF SPIES is also multiple films wrapped up into one: It’s a courtroom
procedural drama during its opening sections and the remaining story is
ostensibly a cat and mouse espionage thriller.
The film opens modestly in Brooklyn, N.Y. in the late 1950’s with
the arrest of Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a suspected Soviet agent deep
undercover in America that’s been accused of spying on U.S. soil.
Worried that every man – not just Americans – be given
a fair trail under due process to be proven guilty, attorney James Donovan
(Hanks) decides to defend Abel and ensure that he receive every
opportunity to plead his case, regardless of his guilt or nationality.
Donovan becomes more won over at the prospect after he meets his
client for the first time, but he’s dealt multiple legal blows when it
appears that just about everyone – including the judge overseeing the
trial – wants Abel to be swiftly sent off to prison and potentially the
electric chair...even when the preponderance of evidence for or against him
even the crafty Donovan is unable to secure a non-guilty verdict for his
client, but he is shrewd enough to spare Abel’s life from what looked
like a death sentence. Regrettably, though, very few in the public eye
respect Donovan for his actions, many deeming his decision to defend the
Soviet spy as categorically un-American. It’s at this point where BRIDGE OF SPIES becomes even more
intriguing, seeing as Donovan – as part of his plea to the judge to
spare Abel’s life – explains how Abel could prove to be a valuable
asset to their country if the need were to ever arise that he could be
used as a prisoner exchange if an American were captured in the U.S.S.R..
Apparently, both the judge and the government decide that Abel is
highly valuable political currency and spare his life.
leads to another story thread in BRIDGE OF SPIES, which focuses on the
more well known ordeal of pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who is shot
down over Soviet soil while piloting a top secret American spy plane.
He was under orders to engage the plane’s self-destruct measures
and ostensibly kill himself if the threat of capture was real.
Powers failed to do so and is promptly taken into Soviet custody. This, predictably enough, makes the CIA really nervous, not
so much over Powers’ physical and mental well being, but rather for
keeping their spy plane’s secrets well guarded.
Fear of Powers divulging key intelligence information is all the
government seems alarmed about. This
leads to the CIA recruiting Donavan to go overseas and broker a prisoner
swap: Abel for Powers. This
involves Donovan having to lie to his friends and family, travel to Berlin
to meet with KGB and East German officials, and try to negotiate a
peaceful – and highly clandestine – exchange…and all without
unsettling the already shaky relationship between the two nations.
most fascinating dynamic in BRIDGE OF SPIES is between Donovan and Abel,
especially considering what the latter represents as part of the dreaded
“Red Menace” to Americans in the court of public opinion.
Donovan never perceives Abel as a purely evil or traitorous man,
but rather simply as yet another client that must receive a fair trail
afforded to him under U.S. law…and regardless of what others think
regarding his guilt or innocence. The screenplay manages to build upon the unlikely friendship
that develops between Donovan and Abel as one of mutual respect.
The quiet, unassuming, and perpetually laid back Abel admires
Donovan for the conviction of his beliefs and dedication to his job,
whereas Donovan sees Abel as an intelligent and calm soul that likes the
fine arts. Abel may indeed be
a spy, but he’s not a vindictively immoral monster; he was simply doing
a job for his country.
performances help sell this bond between characters.
Hanks is ostensibly playing the “Everyman Under Pressure Tom
Hanks Role”, but he does it so confidently and reliably that you’re
willing to forgive him for going back to the performance well yet again
(like Jimmy Stewart before him, Hanks is endlessly watchable portraying
men of decency, courage, and patriotic idealism without it coming off as
overbearingly saccharine). Spielberg
pairs Hanks with the wonderfully understated Rylance, who has a stoic
deadpan sensibility about every situation he’s placed within, even if it
means his life or death. Both
characters are flawed and vulnerable, but they drive forward based on the
confidence in their respective faith in one another. Donovan himself is a wonderfully atypical choice as the
“hero” of a spy flick. He
fights a highly fragile verbal war between nations with his keen
intellect, not his brawn. BRIDGE
OF SPIES, if anything, creates nail biting tension out of modest scenes
showing people engaging in the fine art of mutual back scratching and deal
making…during which time neither party wants to acquiesce to the
69-year-old Spielberg, rather dependably, still knows how to lovingly
conjure up a handsome production. With his long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski creating
stunning and oppressively gorgeous recreations of bitterly cold, snow
covered East Berlin and Michael Kahn’s swiftly assured editing,
Spielberg is in full command of his old-school Hollywood technical craft. As a visual odyssey, Spielberg intuitively understands how to
use the environments as characters in their own right. What make’s Donovan’s mission all the more stifling and
arduous is that he’s a foreigner in strange lands that he doesn’t
fully understand. Yes,
we’ve seen countless films before featuring valiant men caught up in
something far larger than they can comprehend only later find the will to
rise up to the occasion…but Spielberg somehow makes it feel invigorating here. A lesser
director – and lead actor – at the helm would have made BRIDGE OF
SPIES feel perfunctory and formulaic at best.
the film never fully rises to the qualitative heights that many of
Spielberg’s finest historical films have reached.
The fact that the Coens are co-writers here is somewhat
disappointing and distracting, seeing as none of their trademark razor
sharp wits and eclectic quirkiness are anywhere to be found here (as was
also mournfully the case with their script for last year’s POW drama UNBROKEN).
There are times when the screenplay gets a tad too pretentiously
preachy with telegraphing its themes, especially when it comes to
typifying Donovan’s heroic struggle for justice.
Many subplots in the film are also undercooked, like Donovan’s
tumultuous relationship with his wife (a squandered Amy Ryan), not to
mention a segue in the overall story that deals with Frederick Pryor (Will
Rogers), an American student in East Berlin whose own imprisoned plight
gets caught up in Donavan’s ordeal to save Powers.
Powers himself, rather oddly, is never really developed much as a
relatable character as much as Abel is, which leaves the film feeling a
On a positive, Spielberg has found a way in BRIDGE OF SPIES to breathe life into a Hollywood genre that sometimes struggles to feel relevant and fresh. From a technical production standpoint, it’s as solidly constructed of any film that he has done recently. It’s also a rare spy thriller that doesn’t emphasis action, which is commendable in its own right. Yet, for as much good will as Spielberg and Hanks (in their fourth collaboration together) bring to the table here, BRIDGE OF SPIES never builds to any sizeable dramatic plateaus. I rarely felt like Donovan was in any tangible danger during the film, not to mention that – beyond him and Abel – there really isn’t any other absorbing or well-developed characters in the film to invest in. BRIDGE OF SPIES is a good, but somewhat unremarkable Spielberg effort that probably won’t elicit repeat viewings, a trait that many past films on his resume have frequently demanded.