Review: Bridge of Spies

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The teaming of Steven Spielberg and Joel and Ethan Coen is exciting, but not natural–Spielberg is a rank sentimentalist and the Coens eschew sentiment at every turn. So, what do we get when get when we get a director who loves to film children and waving flags directs a script by the guys who had a man put through a woodchipper? A terrific movie–Bridge of Spies.

The film is set during the Cold War, and is about two critical things that happened during the late ’50s and early ’60s. Both, amazingly, involved the same man, James B. Donovan, earnestly played by Tom Hanks. Donovan was an insurance lawyer but was tapped to defend a captured Russian spy, Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is convicted, but when U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down in a U-2 spy plane over Soviet air space, Donovan was selected to negotiate a prisoner swap.

The film begins with a breathless and dialogue-free scene in which Rylance, who’s cover is as a painter, is tracked by FBI agents. He finds a hollow nickel under a park bench, and is subsequently arrested. The entire sequence is vintage Spielberg–not only for the magnficent art direction–every detail speaks of the period–but the almost effortless way Spielberg can tell a story in jn broad strokes as well. The first image of Rylance is in a mirror–he is painting a self-portrait, and so we see three different images of him–the real him, the mirror image, and the portrait. Which is the real him, though?

To make it look like every person in America receives a fair trial, Hanks is selected to defend Rylance, even though he will become very unpopular in doing so. He gets dirty looks on the subway, and his house is shot at (I don’t know if this last is true, but it seems out of left field and is one of the few parts of the movie that don’t work). The judge has already decided Rylance is guilty, and rejects Hanks’ request to disqualify evidence on Constitutional grounds. He also tells a CIA agent where he can stick it when the man tells Hanks to ease up.

Rylance is convicted, but Hanks convinces the judge not to have him executed, which comes in handy when Powers is shot down. The entire U-2 story is basically sandwiched in between the Abel trial, and quite well, too. There is a lot of information in this film (another man will become involved when a student is arrested on the wrong side of the Berlin wall) but I never had a problem understanding what was going on.

The Soviets have Powers, and want to swap him for Abel. Hanks is brought in to negotiate, and sent to Berlin. He tries to get Powers and the student out, even though the CIA really only wants Powers. Everything ends on the bridge of the title.

Bridge of Spies is just smashing. It is a movie that involves a lot of men in suits talking (and wearing hats–this was before Kennedy killed the industry) but it percolates with intensity. The paranoia of the Cold War is palpable, and Spielberg, as his wont, comes up with some dazzling set pieces, such as a pair of men in a rainstorm, one following the other, both with umbrellas. Or Hanks walking through the snowy streets of East Berlin. But then there are what might have been the Coen Brothers’ contributions. The script (which is also credited to Matt Charman) has some fine nuggets, such as Rylance saying, when Hanks asks him if he’s worried, “Would it help?” This happens three times, and each time the circumstances for Rylance and Hanks are different, but the line works like a charm.

Also, and this is key, Bridge of Spies is full of lofty speeches about the rule of law, but at no time seems like a civics lesson. When Hanks tells off the CIA agent, he says that what makes everyone American is the “rule book,” the Constitution. A lot of people can lose sight of that, but Hanks keeps things in check and the words are crisp, not flowery.

Hanks is terrific here, but he’s not the only one. Look for an Oscar nomination for Rylance, the sad sack-looking Abel, who really looks like the kind of guy you see out painting by the Brooklyn Bridge. But he’s savvy and dedicated–he turns down all opportunities to become a double-agent. Hanks grows to admire him, and so do we, perhaps against are better interests. Powers, played by Austin Stowell, is in contrast played as a blunderer, who can’t manage to kill himself or destroy the plane, as he is instructed.

Bridge of Spies is full of good performances, some very brief but enlivening, such as Peter McRobbie as CIA director Allen Dulles, Sebastian Koch as a German lawyer, and Scott Shepherd as that annoying CIA agent, who is a good egg after all. The editing, by Michael Kahn, who goes back with Spielberg to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is brisk, even if the movie is 141 minutes. Janusz Kaminski is back as Spielberg’s DP, and we do get the blown out windows he’s famous for, but this gives the film that gray and ashy look that is appropriate. Spies move in and out of shadows, not in technicolor.

Interestingly, John Williams is not the composer, due to a health issue. Williams had done every Spielberg since Jaws, save for The Color Purple. Thomas Newman fills in, with a bombastic but very typical Hollywood score, with lots of ruffles and flourishes.

I’ll save the “but” for the last, because there’s always a but with Spielberg. Like Saving Private Ryan and A.I., Spielberg can’t leave well enough alone and screws up the ending. The last shot should have been the one on the bridge, just as the last shot of A.I. should have been Haley Osment just feet away from that angel statue for eternity. But Spielberg keeps the camera rolling, and we get a sticky Americana ending that, after the Coens’ smart script, feels tacked on. We get it, Donovan was a hero, and he’s a true blue American.

The last couple of minutes cost the movie a half a star in my mental tabulations, but Bridge of Spies is still one of the best films of the year.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

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