Monday, October 19, 2015

BRIDGE OF SPIES Is a Potent Argument From Spielberg About What America Can Be At Its Best


- A new Steven Spielberg film always feels like an event, but for whatever reason, BRIDGE OF SPIES seemed to come and go largely under many people's radar. It's always interesting to see Spielberg tackle serious period drama - and some of his best films, from Lincoln to Munich to Saving Private Ryan, have come from his examinations of pivotal moments in modern history. What makes BRIDGE OF SPIES different is that it's about the avoidance of conflict as opposed to the reaction to it. In a period when tensions between the US and the USSR created the constant threat of total war, this is a film about a decent man who searches for a way to settle a grievance decently. Spielberg - more than almost any other director - has been adept throughout his career at showing us beacons of hope in dark places. And he does so again with this film - a true story about a point in Cold War history in which, somehow, good sense and a mutual desire for life over death won the day.

In BRIDGE OF SPIES, Tom Hanks plays James Donovan - a lawyer recruited to defend an arrested Soviet Spy in court, and then kept on by the government to help facilitate an exchange with the Soviets: their spy for a captured American pilot, who was caught after going down in an experimental U2 bomber plane. The film gets off to a bit of a slow start. Don't get me wrong, a slow Spielberg start is still infinitely better than your average slow start, because oftentimes it's a pleasure just to bask in the director's wonderfully-lit, lovingly-recreated 1957 America. But what carries the film's first act is the back-and-forth between Hanks and actor Mark Rylance, as captured Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel.

Rylance is absolutely fantastic as Abel. He portrays the spy as a cultured, quiet man who was merely doing a job. His life as a spy is less glamorous than one might think - mostly, it's lonely and sad. Rylance brings a quiet, sullen grace to Abel - you can't help but feel sympathy for him as he faces a ruthless Soviet regime that will surely not take kindly to his capture upon his return to his homeland. On the other hand, his dispassionate outlook towards his duty and country are at times infuriating. Perhaps it is because Abel sees his job for what it is - an endless cat-and-mouse game that simply feeds a perpetual war-machine. But what's so fascinating, and what gives BRIDGE OF SPIES its beating heart, is the relationship between Abel and Donovan.

Hanks' Donovan is the kind of character that likely only Hanks could get away with. He's the Last Decent Man, a guy who loves his family, loves his country, but who by-god thinks everyone deserves a fair trial and a day in court. It might sound like a cookie-cutter role, but give Hanks all the credit in the world - he really adds a lot of layers to the character. For one thing, there's his relationship with Abel. In Abel, Donovan sees a person who is in some ways a kindred spirit. Both are being used as pawns by their countries. Both are expendable by regimes that are always going to protect their own interests rather than those of the individual. But where Abel has become too used up by the system to care much, at this point, about his fate ... Donovan still has some fight left in him. Donovan is still determined to view people as people, not as collateral damage. When an American student is captured by the Soviets, Hank's Donovan wants to make his safe return a part of the deal - even if doing so puts the deal at risk. But where the really impressive work from Hanks comes in are in the moments where you see the incredible toll that fighting this fight - that trying to be the better man - ultimately takes on Donovan. Hanks does an incredible job of showing us a character who continues to push his weariness and anger aside in favor of continued hope - that his way will win out.

This slow-build gives the first part of the film some definite pacing issues, but the net positive is that it leads to a hell of a final act. You can see Spielberg straining to liven things up at times though - he inserts a dazzling flight sequence into the film, as US pilots test out the new U2 planes, and seems relieved to break free from the film's mostly claustrophobic holding cells and offices. Still, is there anyone better at Spielberg at crafting incredible-looking scenes simply by virtue of framing, lighting, and texture?

The script, credited to Matt Charman as well as The Coen Bros. (!!!) contributes to the slow burn. This isn't the sort of film that one might normally associate with the Coens - it would be interesting to hear more about their contribution. But the script is smart, and deliberate, and knows very clearly where it's going. But where the Coens tend to view the world with a nihilistic bent, this film ultimately has the vintage Spielbergian optimism at its core. It's powered by the idea that one man *can* make a difference, that - if even for a moment - the great values that make America great can save it in its darkest hour. This is a film about how Hanks' Donovan reminds a lot of hawkish government officials just how far up their asses their heads had gotten amidst the arms race-inspired bravado of the Cold War. It's a potent lesson that seems just as relevant today, in a world where politicians call for blood rather than civility.

BRIDGE OF SPIES is hurt by pacing issues that prevent it from really hitting its stride until its final act. But ultimately, Spielberg and company get their point across rather powerfully. The film is an important one, and it's got moments of greatness. Though in the Spielberg cannon, it still falls short of the director's best. There isn't quite the gut-punch of a Munich or the iconic moments of a Lincoln. It just feels like there's not quite enough real meat to this story to justify the decompressed way it's told here. But the meat that is there is the kind of Spielbergian goodness that reminds you just why the director is one of the great American storytellers of our time, and why Hanks is the quintessential cinematic every-man. This is a smaller story in some ways as compared to the epics that these two have brought us in the past. But the lesson here is that sometimes the small stories - the ones that don't get their own pages in the history books - are in their own ways the moments that most define us.

My Grade: B+

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