Bridge of Spies is a movie that basically flew under the radar. I knew it was coming out this year, but kept forgetting, didn’t really even know what it was about, and had only seen the trailer a couple of times. Finally seeing it, I realized pretty quickly why it was flying under the radar. It’s a surprisingly low-key movie, one that as you watch it, seems like the opposite of Spielberg’s last film Lincoln. Whereas it was immediately apparent (not speaking of Spielberg’s intentions here, which I assume were strictly honorable, but how the film felt) that it was going for the Oscar, this film just feels like Spielberg’s making a film. As usual, Spielberg just making a film turns out pretty damn well.
Bridge of Spies tells the story of Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer who finds himself getting wrapped up in a complicated web of Cold War spies. With his children fearing that any day the commies will drop the bomb, Jim gets tasked with defending an alleged Russian spy, Rudof Abel (Mark Rylance). The idea is to show that in America, even the Ruskies can have their day in court. Donovan aims to supply him with the best defense possible, because after all that is his job, but the judge in the case, the CIA, and the American public have other ideas. Nevertheless, he saves the man from the electric chair, which is fortunate, because the Russians have captured a US spy and will only give him back if Donovan organizes a trade for Abel.
Bridge of Spies has two distinct halves. The first, showing the details of Abel’s arrest and trial, feels a bit like To Kill a Mockingbird. Hanks plays the Atticus Finch equivalent here, everybody wants him to appear to defend the communist but nobody wants him to actually defend the communist. Donovan has to navigate the forces against him as well as the threats to his family’s safety, but ultimately does a pretty decent job under the circumstances. The second, and better, half of the film focuses on the hostage negotiation and feels a lot more like Argo. It’s not quite as intent on ratcheting up the suspense as that film, but the actual gist of what’s going on feels similar. Donovan has to go behind enemy lines, but he’s just a lawyer without backup, not a CIA agent. He has to negotiate with both the Russians and the East Germans, and besides, he has a pretty bad cold.
Tom Hanks, as usual, turns in a good performance as Donovan. Now, I’m not thinking Oscar nomination because I don’t think anyone’s going to nominate Hanks for the billionth time when he’s playing an every man here which is his normal shtick. There’s a reason that’s his normal shtick though, because he’s really darn good at it. There’s a reason he gets compared to Jimmy Stewart, and this is one of those roles that really recall him. Especially when Hanks is surrounded by either less than honorable Americans in the first half and representatives of enemy countries in the second, his brand of American idealism comes through pretty strongly throughout the film. His also brings a certain amount of confidence to Donovan, so his actions become partly about doing the right thing and partly about doing his job to the best of his ability. It’s not just about freeing prisoners or doing justice; he’s good at negotiating and loves a chance to show this. The supporting characters, though very well acted, fall by the wayside in the wake of Donovan’s domination of the screen time (though it was nice to see Alan Alda as his boss at the law firm, and Amy Ryan as his wife. Someday she won’t just have to play wives, right?)
As is always with Spielberg, one keeps an eye out for excessive sentimentality. In recent years (ever since AI I feel like), he comes under fire for not ending things properly. This film sort of falls into that category, but not to the extent that Lincoln does I think. The first half becomes very repetitive in that Donovan seems to have the same conversation about defending Abel with basically everyone he meets, and the focus becomes less on process and more on flag-waving. The second half is a lot better in this respect, but once he returns back home we get this coda where there are a bunch of callbacks to some of the stuff he’s seen in Berlin and how different it is in America. These get piled on and can induce some eye-rolling towards the end, but luckily the Berlin scenes are so strong that it doesn’t drag the picture down too too much.
Bridge of Spies is an excellently made film. It has a few faults, it’s a bit too sentimental both in the script and execution, and it’s slightly unbalanced between the two halves, but all in all it’s a really well made movie. I understand labeling it minor Spielberg but I’m not really sure that’s the right thing to call it. It’s more low key than a lot of the films he’s known for, but it’s all the more refreshing for it. It’s nice to see a film and not be consumed with how important it thinks it is (Black Mass, I’m looking at you). I feel that we’re all so used to seeing Spielberg make big capitol M- Movies, be they Oscar bait or blockbusters, that it’s extremely pleasant to see him turn his talents to something like Bridge of Spies.
“Would it help?”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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