November 02, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies has such exquisite craftsmanship that I can forgive most of its flaws. I found myself gawking at the beauty of this Cold War spy movie, one of the few in recent memory that doesn’t rely on exhausting action sequences. It’s interesting to note that Steven Spielberg, one of the filmmakers responsible for the mind-numbing blockbuster pictures that ubiquitously bombard us, is capable of making thoughtful, meticulously detailed, deliberately paced films. (And really, he’s much better than most of his peers at the mindless action stuff too.) Bridge of Spies lets us drink in every scene, and despite being overlong, it doesn’t have the veneer of self-importance of Lincoln, which was Spielberg’s tedious dissertation about the Civil War. It’s the most adult Spielberg film I’ve seen in recent years that does not equate “adult” with boredom.  

In Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks plays insurance lawyer Jim Donovan, who in 1960 was tasked with defending an alleged Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel (played by Mark Rylance). Donovan feels ill-equipped for the job, but resolves to follow through to the end. This is a very good part for Tom Hanks, because there isn’t a lot of grand-standing involved. Hanks, whether we like it or not (and I don’t much like it), became the Everyman of American cinema in the 1990s. Now he’s turned into the Everygrandpa, and it’s often difficult to see the character through the star. But in Bridge of Spies, he’s believable, and he imbues the part with a welcome sense of humor. Hanks isn’t out to prove anything to anybody, which is perhaps the most gracious and generous thing he can do at this stage in his career.

The film explores the U.S. legal system and the fact that Donovan becomes a Pariah because he believes in the concept of due process, even when it’s a Russian spy being tried. Over the course of two hours and some change, Donovan and Abel develop an unexpected friendship. Abel is the consummate gentleman, a meek and even-tempered man in his 60s, who paints beautiful landscapes and portraits. Is this the face of the Red Menace? But Americans want to see him hanged, regardless of how nice he is. Spielberg grapples fairly competently with these complexities. So often, his films treat Grand American heroes and their respective mythologies with mindless, sugar-coated kid-friendly simplicity. With Bridge of Spies, Spielberg embraces moral complexity with confidence that sustains itself almost to the conclusion.

Of course, there’s always a moment in a Spielberg film where the director errs on the side of optimism, and in general, on the side of American exceptionalism. Much of the second half of the film involves an exchange of prisoners between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Donovan travels to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange, and there he is confronted with the horrors of the Berlin Wall. We see Communist worker-soldiers laying bricks and slathering mortar between them, erecting this very physical metaphor for the schism between Communism and Capitalism, between freedom and slavery. (These are the big, inflated, black-and-white themes that Spielberg both subverts and reaffirms in this picture.) Seeing the wall in that way, as an object under construction, not yet fixed but representing a chilling obstruction to freedom, was striking enough to give me pause. At the end of the film, as Donovan rides the train back to his home in Brooklyn, he sees some kids jumping over a fence. Not long before, Donovan had witnessed the execution of three people trying to jump the Berlin Wall. Now we see children, happily jumping over a fence that separates not two countries or two worldviews, but two houses. This moment of parallelism feels more than a little self-satisfied: We triumph with our Americanism, and here fences are just fences. It’s perhaps the one disingenuous note in the film, and yet it’s beautifully poetic, as propaganda. (I’m not suggesting that life in East Berlin was better with the Wall; merely that it’s an oversimplification to assume that fences in America aren’t doing the same kind of segregating work.)

The script is co-written by the Coen Brothers, who manage to reign themselves in without forgoing a sense of humor. Matt Charman shares script credit with them; perhaps he did the tempering work of linking Team Coen with Team Spielberg: It’s hard to imagine two more different sensibilities merging together for the same movie. But Bridge of Spies works; it's a good, not great film, and it's skillfully made. 

With Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell (as the American pilot being held prisoner by the Russians), Scott Shepherd, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Koch, Eve Hewson, Peter McRobbie, and Will Rogers. 

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