By Dan Cava
October 16, 2015
Almost immediately after 9/11, Steven Spielberg began to slyly but persistently turn his lens towards the changing landscape of American society. 2002’s Minority Report was a probing investigation into the link between privacy and liberty masquerading as a Tom Cruise future noir. The Terminal in 2004 was a Frank Capra homage hiding a critique of American immigration policy. War of the Worlds used an alien attack to play directly on our fears of foreign invasion, while Munich offered a devastatingly human vision of Bush-era revenge politics by dramatizing Israel’s response to a 1972 terrorist attack. And lately, with War Horse and Lincoln, Spielberg has been exploring the role of empathy and patience in surviving and resolving grand conflicts brought on by national interests run amok. Each movie has worked well on its own, but taken as a body of work, there’s an undeniable shrewdness in Spielberg’s approach. For over a decade, the man whose name has been synonymous with childlike wonder, thrilling adventure, blockbuster spectacle and deep sentiment has been lacing together a discussion of present-day concerns into an array of seemingly unrelated genre films.
With Bridge of Spies, Spielberg cleverly hides his commentary on post-Cold War politics in a dramatic recreation of a Cold War incident. The film depicts the historical events following the arrest of a Russian spy Rudolf Abel in 1957. Tom Hanks, in his fourth collaboration with Spielberg, plays James Donovan, a dogged insurance lawyer tasked by the CIA to defend the Russian agent at the ensuing espionage trial. The government wants Donovan to put on a show but play it soft, as Abel’s conviction is a foregone conclusion in their minds; but Donovan starts to make waves when he attempts to mount an actual constitutional defense.
Bridge of Spies is not an intense movie, but rather, a drama about people engaged in tense situations. The movie is not so much gripping as, perhaps, coaxing and relentlessly so. Spielberg has given us some of the finest pieces of overwhelming entertainment in movie history, but here as in his Lincoln, he is content to methodically lay out the story, one piece at a time, from start to finish, and that’s it. In that sense, as well as quite a few others, Bridge of Spies is wonderfully old fashioned.
There’s a sense of sure-handed, old school craftsmanship in every element of the movie. Tom Hanks plays our hero (and there’s no postmodern doubt about it, he’s our hero) with the settled gravitas of a Hollywood leading man. It may come as no surprise that Gregory Peck was interested in this role many years ago. Spielberg surrounds his star with a deep bench of talented actors, and the performances are polished and straightforward. Mark Rylance is particularly good as the captured Russian spy, exuding a kind of weathered decency even as he serves his country’s interests. With the exception of one nicely crafted flight scene, there are few obvious visual effects. Spielberg’s camera is perfectly placed as always, and only seems to move when it has to. (Watch how seamlessly Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn handle a cat-and-mouse pursuit scene in the movie’s opening moments.) The script, written by British playwright Matt Charman and polished by cinema savants Joel and Ethan Coen, is fascinatingly un-showy. The movie is mostly a series of loaded conversations and what few set pieces there are– a handful of scenes at the Berlin Wall, complete with a John le Carré-style bridge– are brief and effective. The dialogue is rhythmic but direct, the characters distinct but hardly the eccentrics we so often see in the Coen’s own films.
All this is not say that script doesn’t have a few serious tricks up its sleeve; it’s just that those tricks are woven deeply into the fabric of the narrative. The first half of Bridge of Spies may seem like a conventional American legal drama until you realize that, in order for American-style justice to truly be served, you’ll need to root for due process to be applied to an foreign enemy combatant. Also, what starts off as a courtroom battle over the fate of KGB agent Rudolf Abel, takes a turn when halfway through the movie American spy pilot Francis Powers gets shot down over Russia. Like Rudolf Abel, Powers is unambiguously guilty, and yet the retributive sentencing he receives in Russia is pointedly similar to that which Abel receives in America, just a little harder to like because Powers one of “us.” The movie’s domestic judicial action then gives way a complex series of clandestine international negotiations as the United States and Russia haggle over a backchannel prisoner exchange, Abel for Powers. To complicate matters further, East Germany enters the fray with demands and an American prisoner of its own, and Hanks’ Donovan finds himself standing between three nations, each just a little more interested in global brinksmanship than in the prisoners themselves. This is subtle, grown-up stuff, and the fact that it all comes off so easily is a testament to both the script and the enormous clarity that Spielberg’s steady approach brings to it.
It’s tempting to expect something overwhelming from Bridge of Spies, especially because Spielberg has delivered “overwhelming” so many times before. But we need to look at the movie we have and not the one we expect. Bridge of Spies hits every goal it aims for, and is as solid a piece of vintage Hollywood moviemaking as we’re likely to see this year. And yet, that overwhelming feeling is often the thing, I think, that helps us separate the very good movies from the great ones. Bridge of Spies is a fine piece of classical filmmaking, but it’s not quite a classic. I suspect that it’s not meant to be. It’s modest story told with the same modesty Spielberg has come to prize in his politics.
And so it seems no mistake that this movie arrives directly on the heels of Lincoln, another story that championed the virtues of nuanced political discourse and whose hero uncompromisingly insists on compromise. Spielberg’s post-9/11 canon continues to reveal a filmmaker increasingly as interested in how we think as in how we feel, and as he’s done so so often recently, he leaves it to us to draw our own connections from Donovan’s story to modern day affairs. It’s not the visceral kick we’ve come to expect from Spielberg, but Bridge of Spies is a smart, sturdy piece of cinema that expertly mixes past events with progressive ideals.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.