Bridge of Spies (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Bridge of Spies (2015)

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The Cold War is ramping up as American and Soviet spies play cat-and-mouse on the ground while propaganda pieces blare over the airways.  Rudolf Abel, spy for the Soviets, is arrested by the CIA after spending years in America.  The American government hopes to put on a show about the fairness of their justice system and enlists insurance lawyer James Donovan for the defense - a defense Donovan takes more seriously than his superiors and leads him into the world of espionage.  Steven Spielberg directs Bridge of Spies from a screenplay written by Matt Charman, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen, and stars Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.

Facing the west from the eastSteven Spielberg has been a convenient boogeyman whether you fall on the high or low side of the cinematic cultural divide.  Either he's the person who tries and fails to introduce complex ideas to a mainstream audience or waters down his considerable talent to make easily accessible mediocrities.  I'm slightly exaggerating both positions but they're not uncommon since he was "responsible" for breaking the artistic control directors had over studios in the '70s (see also: the George Lucas backlash).  However, this is important to think about as we look at Bridge of Spies because if we focus on the surface it's the sort of lark he and Tom Hanks might throw together during an otherwise lazy summer.

But Spielberg has a trio of aces to play in the form of a screenplay co-written by Matt Charman, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen.  Spielberg's never been shy about throwing some institutional critiques in with his support of patriotism.  Having the Coen brothers on hand to sharpen those critiques makes what would otherwise be a decent film into a pretty good one.

Spielberg's frequent cinematographer Janusz Kamiński creates separate spaces the characters have to reach across as the web of communication becomes more complicated.

Spielberg's frequent cinematographer Janusz Kamiński creates separate spaces the characters have to reach across as the web of communication becomes more complicated.

Make no mistake, Bridge of Spies gives you exactly what you'd expect out of both Spielberg and Hanks.  You'll likely have a good time watching it and slide in with the steady rhythm of Spielberg's shots as the machinations of the spy games grow steadily more complicated on both sides of the ocean.  Hanks plays yet another iteration of his decent, hardworking, and professional man more interested in upholding the ideals of his system instead of being a pawn of it.

Steady as Bridge of Spies is, the moments where you can hear satirical knives being sharpened are its easy high points.  The first comes within the opening scenes of the film when we're introduced to Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) as he carefully dodges the CIA operatives out to get him.  Even though he's the "bad guy" Rylance presents Abel as a cautious and courteous spy in contrast to the bumbling bluntness of the CIA as they try to catch Abel.  The nearly wordless opening cuts straight into a piano tinged score and complicated web of insurance negotiations in a spectacular exchange involving James Donovan (Tom Hanks).  I like the visual to dialogue implication here that the insurance world, when there are disputes, carries just as many rhetorical feints and false conclusions as the game Abel is playing with the CIA.

The parallels Spielberg draws with the screenplay take on a sharper tone when Donovan fights to ensure Abel gets a fair trial.  In another spectacular juxtaposition of moments, the rushed trial Abel receives begins with, "All rise," only to cut to a classroom full of young students reciting the pledge of allegiance then watching nuclear blast Cold War propaganda.  It's another clear message, one that's not so favorable toward Americans, that the sham of the "justice" forced on Abel is just another extension of the fear-mongering shoveled onto kids.  In this moment Bridge of Spies didn't remind me of a fun espionage flick but something which took the power of propaganda as seriously as Kathryn Bigelow's K-19: The -Widowmaker.

Which brings me to Rylance's fascinating performance as Abel.  Whether Spielberg or the Coen's realized "Abel" is too perfect a name for someone sacrificed in the name of zealotry, Rylance at least provides him with a weary determination.  He's aware that he's the sacrificial lamb - whether he's happy about it or not isn't in the question - and Rylance talks about how easily he may be executed with subdued humor.  By not giving into the same zealotry of his American enemies Rylance makes Abel a compelling enigma.  He's our "enemy", sure, but so quietly decent it's easy to understand why Donovan would want to get him a fair trial.

Projecting one generation's fears onto the next.

Projecting one generation's fears onto the next.

Every other aspect of Bridge of Spies is what I'd expect from a Spielberg / Hanks film about espionage.  There are moments of good humor springing from the absurdity of espionage as when Donovan meets three people in East Germany who claim to be Abel's relatives when they don't seem to know each other.  Hanks plays Donovan as a man similarly resigned to grind the gears of espionage with terse line readings like, when asked how he lost his coat, he tiredly responds, "Spy stuff."  The remaining supporting cast is good even if they blend into one another due to how "in the dark" Donovan remains even when he becomes the key player in international negotiations.

All in all, good if rather unremarkable stuff compared to the parts of Bridge of Spies which criticize the American propaganda machine of the Cold War.  But there's no question that, for their respective systems, both Donovan and Abel are good people.  Not all Spielberg films need to end with the main character wondering whether or not they're a good person, and sometimes I need to watch decent people do their best instead of getting bogged down in moral relativism.

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Tail - Bridge of SpiesBridge of Spies (2015)

Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Screenplay written by Matt Charman, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen.
Starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.

Posted by Andrew

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