Sunday, October 18, 2015
Bridge of Spies (**1/2)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg has been living in the past for quite a while now. Not since War of the Worlds has he made a film taking place in something resembling contemporary times, and in that film he destroyed the world. Of course, both Munich in 2005 and his previous film, Lincoln in 2012, were pieces of historical narrative drenched in metaphor for the issues of the present. Munich could have been decoded as a strong criticism of the US's occupation of Iraq, and Lincoln simply IS a salute to Obama America, even if Spielberg continues to insist that it isn't so. His Bridge of Spies is a strong piece of filmmaking, a testament to just how good a director Spielberg can be, despite how intriguing or not intriguing his story is. Of course, this story is intriguing, an in-depth drama exploring the most talked about American war that never happened. The Cold War was a decades-long staredown consisting of paranoia seeping from both sides, as two world powers used not-so-veiled threats of complete world destruction to see who would blink first. It birthed so many agencies and counter-agencies, and yet, the movies have never seemed to have much interest in dramatizing it. The way Spielberg goes about it here is interesting, he doesn't see himself as duty-bound to do everything he can to paint America as the benevolent protector, nor does he coyly play the Soviets as sadistic monsters. Instead, he's neutral, the film itself is procedural. If Joe McCarthy had seen this screenplay during his reign of power who knows what he would have made of it.
For Spies, Spielberg employs his most useful movie star in Tom Hanks. The celebrated filmmaker has had success with a number of different actors (Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Richard Dreyfuss, to name a few), but Hanks has always been the best option in displaying the America that Spielberg is always trying to celebrate. Here, Hanks plays James Donovan, a Brooklyn insurance lawyer with a strict eye for the rules of law. His discipline is why he's handpicked by the US government to defend the recently obtained Rudolf Abel (English legend Mark Rylance), a believed Soviet spy. Donovan's job is too make it clear to the world that Abel is getting a fair trial in the American fashion and not simply being sent to the stockade. Abel's fate in the courts is a far-gone conclusion, but Donovan's participation in it is mostly a formality, but things become complicated when Donovan takes his responsibilities more seriously than expected. When he asks that substantial FBI evidence be thrown out because it was obtained without the proper warrant, both the judge and the opposing representation are aghast. At home, his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) frets over how her husband's position will be received within the US, as more and more citizens begin to resent Donovan's attempt to give Abel a true defense. Tensions rise even higher when after Abel is given his inevitable guilty verdict, Donovan convinces the judge not to sentence him to execution, but instead imprisonment - citing that keeping him alive can come useful to the States in the case of a negotiation if a captured American spy comes to light.
Donovan's far-fetched hypothetical comes to fruition when CIA pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Soviet land and held captive, interrogated for information. Because of his work with Abel's trial, Donovan is once again pegged to travel to Berlin and negotiate the exchange: Powers for Abel. When an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) studying in West Germany is caught on the wrong side as the Berlin Wall is being erected, he is also placed in confinement by the Stasi as a spy. Caught within the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with both the Soviets and the newly formed German Democratic Republic (a nation America refused to acknowledge at the time), Donovan is thrown into the chaos and made to feel out the situation on his own, doing his best to save both Powers and Pryor, while also getting Abel back to his family in Moscow. As Donovan, Hanks seems less interested in playing the Hollywood nice guy that has so thoroughly defined his career. There's a gruffness to the performance here, an aggravation. He shifts his weight uncomfortably and often. He has the integrity of Jefferson Smith, but is less interested in hearing what the other guy has to say. Donovan is a man motivated by the objectives that he is given, but Hanks doesn't go all out to make him heroic, his duties aren't lionized. Spielberg can't help but frame Donovan appropriately, center frame as the Man of Honor, but Hanks isn't so easily persuaded. Late-career Tom Hanks is a bit more restless and dreary, a different "everyman" than the one audiences are used to seeing him play.
Spielberg seems much more fascinated by Francis Powers' story than I certainly was. His hiring by the CIA and his eventual capture is cross cut clumsily into the more interesting narrative of Donovan and Abel. The amiable, almost sweet, exchanges between attorney and client are short and simple but filled with the movie's best moments. Rylance, one of the UK's most beloved performers, plays Abel with a stoic knowingness, the perfect foil to Donovan's frustration. The movie has a true wonder in the scenes they have together and I wish we could have gotten more of them, but that's not where most of the story lies. Bridge of Spies is stocked with wonderfully constructed sequences. A scene in the beginning where agents do their best to be coy as they follow a clever Abel through a crowded subway station is the kind of thing that Spielberg can do in his sleep. The film doesn't come with the heft of a Munich or Lincoln, it doesn't try to call upon history to paint pictures of today. The script, which was drafted by Matt Charman, before being reformed by, of all people, the Coen brothers, has a sense of merriment. It finds the humor in an international conflict that was a thousand times more bark than bite. Part of me wishes that Spielberg could have found more of the humor as well. The film seemed long to me, dragged along by a complex, multi-faceted plot that has moments that are more entertaining than others, but it's an intelligent take on a period too often ignored in cinema. Ultimately, the film's Spielbergian morality takes it a step down from what it could have been. Mirroring the very period it portrays, Bridge of Spies could have used more bite itself.