“Bridge of Spies won’t be remembered in the upper regions of either its star’s or its director’s respective filmographies, but it’s still a solid and engaging project.”
by Ken B.
In the spiny, detailed, and thoroughly unscientific Political Compass test, one of the statements that one measures their agreement with is “There are no savage and civilized peoples; only different cultures”. Certainly, every part of history contains its share of savagery, but often the humanity of the innocent living within it is often forgotten, and therefore, we forget our own. Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies demonstrates how this idea can become obscured between nations over an extended period of diplomatic tension. The film is set largely in 1960, a depiction of the U-2 incident, in which an American spy plane, piloted by one Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), was shot down over Soviet territory. He is quickly imprisoned by the government. The job for the United States becomes to negotiate Powers’ release.
Assigned to negotiate the event is New York insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who first became (in)famous to the public three years earlier, after defending Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), an undercover Soviet agent put on trial. Donovan barely managed to convince the court not to execute the man, warning that if an American spy was captured and Abel was dead, no exchange could take place between the two nations. Because of his foresight and argumentative powers, Donovan is assigned, in a top-secret mission, to travel to East Berlin and negotiate the trade – Abel for Powers, Powers for Abel, but with international tensions thickening, the stakes build higher and higher, and an already difficult task may be complicated more than anyone could have expected.
For me at least, Bridge of Spies goes under the category of “lesser Spielberg”, although a movie with that label will be better than a lot of filmmakers’ best work. Certainly, if you go down the board, you find a lot going for it. A full-bodied score from Thomas Newman (John Williams was busy composing the music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Handsome, stately cinematography from Janusz Kamiński. And of course, an excellent cast, which besides Hanks and Rylance, features the likes of Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, and Sebastian Koch in supporting roles. There are great individual setpieces, such as a largely dialogue-less opening sequence which concludes in Abel’s initial arrest. Examining individual aspects of the movie returns stellar results.
But what makes it wear thin for me? Mainly, it’s some problems with the script. While there is serious talent involved with the writing – Matt Charman and the Coen brothers – Bridge of Spies has a tendency to splinter off into wandering moods and storylines which sometimes have trouble congealing into a single, clear vision. The kind of film it is at the beginning feels rather different than the one towards the end, where crisp perspicacity is exchanged for sappy mush. The last three scenes of the movie feel unnecessary, seemingly there only to have an emotional button which fails to feel organic or logical in its progression. Spielberg draws multiple visual parallels between scenes in East Berlin and earlier ones in New York City, but they fall flat and just seem corny. Instead of feeling stirring, it just comes off as canned. I do wonder, however, if it really is the screenwriters that are responsible for these errors, however – Spielberg himself has a tendency to overdo it at times in this field.
But like I said, this hardly makes Bridge of Spies a bad movie. Far from it. Regardless of my complaints with the writing, and a tone which changes from sharp to soft, we’re talking about a film starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg. That counts for a lot. And while it comes off as a bit rambling at 141 minutes, there’s a distinct success that comes from taking a story with a well documented, verifiable ending and creating drama which can, for the most part, hold the attention of the viewer (it also helps that the U-2 incident isn’t as well known as other Cold War chapters). Bridge of Spies won’t be remembered in the upper regions of either its star’s or its director’s respective filmographies, but it’s still a solid and engaging project.