Editor’s Notes: Bridge of Spies is out in wide theatrical release today.
A retreat into the past, a retreat into period films centered on social and political issues, especially for a world-class, master filmmaker, often signals an unwillingness to grapple with the complexities and contradictions of the present. That same filmmaker – and, of course, his defenders – would argue that period films can not only illuminate our shared past, but also enlighten us about our shared present and even our future. Unfortunately, that argument doesn’t hold where Steven Spielberg’s latest cinematic history lesson, Bridge of Spies, is concerned. A self-consciously well-meaning, sober foray into the rapidly dimming Cold War past, Bridge of Spies offers few of the narrative or visual thrills associated with Spielberg’s more popular commercial work, while also shedding little light – and maybe too much darkness – on a little known historical footnote.
A nearly wordless, 10-minute opening sequence, however, serves as a reminder of Spielberg’s undiminished talents and skills as a visual and narrative filmmaker.
A nearly wordless, 10-minute opening sequence, however, serves as a reminder of Spielberg’s undiminished talents and skills as a visual and narrative filmmaker. Spielberg follows a seemingly average, middle-aged man, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), on an excitement-free morning and a routine that includes a self-portrait, a subway ride, and a leisurely, relaxing walk through a local park. Abel, however, is anything but ordinary. He’s a communist spy, working closely with his Soviet handlers to pass secrets (of what kind we never learn), a walking, talking, breathing example of the spies and traitors Senator Joe McCarthy railed about during his meteoric rise and fall as a right-wing demagogue in the mid 1950s. Almost immediately, the FBI swoops into his shabby, one-bedroom apartment and arrests Abel. Torrents of dialogue, most merely functional and expository, some ornamental and darkly humorous, revealing faint echoes of the Coen Brothers’ involvement as secondary screenwriters on the script, follow.
Abel’s fate seems all but certain, a rushed trial followed by either life in prison (at best) or the death penalty (at worst). Eager to use Abel’s trial as an example of the righteousness and fairness of America’s criminal justice system, the local bar association taps James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks, in Jimmy Stewart/Gregory Peck mode), an insurance attorney at a major law firm, to defend Abel. Initially reluctant, Donovan not only rises to the occasion (an unsurprising development), elevated, even intoxicated by the ideals animating the U.S. Constitution, but also by a growing sense of respect and admiration for Abel, a man also driven by an adherence to a specific ideology (communism), however wrong-headed they may be. Donovan loses, of course, but remains dedicated to giving Abel the benefit of his expertise and passion for the U.S. Constitution, up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bridge of Spies changes direction halfway through, seguing from courtroom drama to spy drama . . .
Bridge of Spies changes direction halfway through, seguing from courtroom drama to spy drama (to call Bridge of Spies a “spy thriller” would be a gross exaggeration) with Donovan now tasked with negotiating a spy swap with both the Soviet Union and East Germany in East Berlin weeks, if not days, after the completion of the Berlin Wall. Donovan’s superiors in Washington expect Donovan to swap Abel for Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), the captured pilot of a U2 spy plane downed over the Soviet Union. Donovan complicates matters by taking a risky position at the negotiating table, stubbornly revising the offer of a trade not just for Abel not just for Powers (a straight 1-for-1 swap), but a 2-for-1 trade including Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a naïve American economics student arrested by the East Germans as an American spy in the last days before the Berlin Wall sealed the border between East and West Germany and the U.S./NATO block on one side and the Soviet bloc on the other.
Donovan’s dedication to the “No American Left Behind” principle puts him at odds against his CIA handlers, elevating Donovan not so subtlety as a paragon of virtue and integrity – the best kind of paragon, apparently, albeit also one of the dullest and least emotionally engaging – and creates additional tension with his Soviet and East German counterparts (the latter vying for international recognition). Over several decades, Hanks has turned into the go-to actor for moral rectitude and uncompromising integrity, character traits Donovan amply shares with Hanks’ onscreen persona, but the script repeatedly fails to give Hanks the opportunity to play depth or nuance as Donovan, ultimately leaving Hanks to play Donovan as a mouthpiece for Cold War-era liberal values (minus, of course, counter-cultural extremes like the contemporaneous Civil Rights Movement).
Bridge of Spies also sidesteps the usual pyrotechnics associated with the spy genre – minus the opening sequence and the CG-heavy downing of Powers’ super-secret surveillance plane – relying almost exclusively on dialogue to move plot and characters forward (and sometimes backward) toward a not particularly suspenseful resolution and denouement. Bridge of Spies actually runs closer to the cynical, anti-Bond novels and subsequent adaptations of John Le Carré (The Constant Gardener, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) awkwardly, sometimes crudely crossed with the sentimentality of Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), the latter especially evident during a completely unnecessary, theme-underlining coda that serves as another reminder, this time of Spielberg at his most unrestrained and manipulative.
A self-consciously well-meaning, sober foray into the rapidly dimming Cold War past, Bridge of Spies offers few of the narrative or visual thrills associated with Spielberg’s more popular commercial work, while also shedding little light – and maybe too much darkness – on a little known historical footnote.