by Brian Surber
It is a difficult and interesting task to critique a Steven Spielberg film. He is arguably our country’s greatest cinematic storyteller; whose wide-ranging and history-defining filmography is among the most impressive ever seen. It’s only natural at some point to judge his new film among his past works and therefore there tend to be a few challenges. First of which being that his best works (E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Munich, etc.) rank with the best films of all time. The second being that his weaker films (Amistad, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, etc.) are still pretty damn good. Putting a film lower on his list may seem like a mark against it, but it usually means it’s just really really good. And so we come to Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s fourth film with Tom Hanks (and 3rd best, again not a bad thing), a film so good and so well made it merely counts a mid-level Spielberg. It’s really a shame more movies aren’t simply average Spielberg.
The film concerns KGB spy Rudolph Abel who is captured by the US government and is assigned to lawyer James B. Donovan who believes that everyone in our country deserves a fair trial and is determined to perform his job to the best of his ability. The film is essentially split into two halves: the trial of Abel and Donovan traveling to Berlin to negotiate the trade of Abel and newly shot down American pilot Francis Gary Powers. The two-half split works wonders for the film both in terms of pacing (the 2 hour and 22 minute run time never drags) and tone.
The first half of the film is about the relationships. Notably, Donovan’s growing admiration for and friendship with Abel and Donovan’s relationship with his country, his values, and his fellow Americans. Donovan is criticized and harassed by the general population who believe him to be a KGB spy supporter for taking the case. He is followed by the CIA, he is shot at in his home, and he is scrutinized by the police who arrive to help him after said shooting. His wife (an admittedly under-used Amy Ryan) straddles the line of support for her husband and his strong belief in a fair trial, and his boss (Alan “if you go to the bathroom you could miss him” Alda) comes to resent his persistence of fair justice.
The incontestable highlight of the first half of Bridge of Spies is the slow-growing camaraderie and friendship of Abel and Donovan. Two people who are scrutinized and punished for doing a job they were assigned find a quiet resonance in each other. What starts as business becomes respect as the two men find solace in their situations. Abel admires Donovan’s conviction and resolve, while Donovan admires Abel’s studious and calming nature as well as his courage and earnestness.
Both of these men come to life through two wholly different and equally riveting performances by the men playing them. Tom Hanks plays Donovan with a light, almost weightlessness that helps deepen his character with the dark cynical background behind him. He is honest and true and does what he feels he must to honor what he thinks is the basis of America. Hanks brings his natural charisma and painfully characterized face to Donovan and almost floats above everyone else. Funny, real, and incredibly natural, it’s a wonderful performance.
But it’s not the best. Exploding onto the screen like the slowest bomb ever, Mark Rylance gives a devastatingly understated performance. He dominates the screen with a quiet presence that keep you glued to him. Neither a villain nor a hero he plays a man who did his job and got caught. He worries not about what happens to him, he only lives with his situation and the decisions he made. With a scarce amount of lines (including one banger of a monologue) Rylance projects years of emotion buried under a complex moral compass. He’s remarkably dazzling and his work in the first half sets up the emotional strength of the second.
As the setting changes to Berlin Bridge of Spies shifts into a steely Cold War thriller. The tension pulses as Donovan is on his own and left to his own devices (it becomes clear that if he is caught he will receive no help). The three parties involved work in uncomfortable settings and deal with uncomfortable discussions, all the while providing the audience with an intense verbal game of cat and mouse. It’s intricate stuff and Spielberg and screenwriters Mark Charman, and Joel & Ethan Coen know how to move the characters from plot point to plot point, location to location and keep us in suspense and tension throughout.
The second half concludes on the titular bridge and it’s quite a sequence. Abel’s presence is used to reaffirm the cause, nobility and necessity of Donovan’s fight. It’s expertly edited and paced, as well as shot with longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminksi (Columbia alum! What! What!) reveling in cold, icy lighting. The ending may be too on-the-nose for some (although, it’s classic Spielberg) but it’s necessary when understanding that Bridge of Spies is about fighting not only for what you think is right, but for what you believe is worth standing for.
A masterful film that lives, breaths, and evolves constantly through its runtime, Bridge of Spies is a classic spy thriller. Steven Spielberg’s film lives at the surface and elevates its tension as it heads toward its conclusion. With two captivating performances, masterful directing by the master, Bridge of Spies is only average Spielberg-fare. So it’s better than 90% of what’s currently out there. When you have one of the greats working his magic it’s a thrilling thing. Even if it’s worse than Jaws.
Rating – 1/2