A film review by Craig J. Koban October 23, 2015

BRIDGE OF SPIES jjj
 

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. 

Somewhat 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. 

BRIDGE 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 remains questionable. 

 

 

Unfortunately, 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.  

This 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. 

The 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. 

The 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 other’s demands. 

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. 

Still, 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 bit lopsided. 

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. 

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