Monday, November 2, 2015

'Bridge of Spies' review

It's almost surreal to think that we haven't had a film from Steven Spielberg in nearly three years. But if you look back at Spielberg's filmography, that seems to be the general trend- a large burst of productivity followed by a few years of nothing while he builds up for his next set of films. And indeed, that trend will continue now. Going into October, he had three films set to release over the next couple of years and the first one up is the Cold War drama Bridge of Spies. Another collaboration with Tom Hanks, this is a talky, methodical drama that works right into Spielberg's Lincoln wheelhouse. A film of two distinct halves, Bridge of Spies alternates between an almost preachy quality to tense negotiations, all set during the height of the Cold War. It's a respectable effort, but it lacks the power of something like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List or the extraordinary performances of Lincoln. Not that every Spielberg film should be a masterpiece, but sadly, Bridge of Spies will likely go down as one of the director's lesser efforts.

In the tense and masterfully constructed opening scene of Bridge of Spies, we're thrust immediately into 1957 New York, where Soviet undercover spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is being pursued by several government agents. After his capture, Abel becomes a figurehead for the evil spirit of Communism seeping into American homes leading to mass hysteria and hatred from the public. In order to give Abel a proper defense, the government and attorney Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) recruit insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend the Soviet spy. Donovan is hesitant at first, but quickly accepts the challenge and the opportunity to defend Abel, and in his view, the Constitution. Nobody besides Donovan seems to want to give Abel a fair trial, and because of this, the lawyer must fight an uphill battle to win the case for his client.

But everything changes after a series of events that puts an American spy in direct danger. Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is a bomber pilot for the U.S. Air Force instructed to perform a reconnaissance mission over Soviet Russia. If anything goes wrong, he is to go down with his plane. Unfortunately, Powers doesn't quite cooperate and ends up imprisoned by the Soviets. In addition, a grad student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is taken into custody in Germany leaving the U.S. leaving the U.S. with quite a dilemma. The U.S. feds want their two hostages back and the Soviets want Abel. They send Donovan to East Berlin to negotiate the swap leaving the humble lawyer in charge of the negotiations that could change the fates of the countries forever.

Bridge of Spies is an interesting film in the Spielberg canon because of how unmistakably small-scale it is. There's no grandiose action or flashy story or critical historical events- this is very much a low-key, dialogue-driven film about a series of court cases and negotiations. It is workmanlike and efficient, clocking in at 142 minutes with ease, and it attempts to shoehorn in some traditional Spielberg sentimentalism, but it ultimately ends up being a very quiet film. Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance make for a formidable on-screen duo, the script is sharply and humorously written and the attention to period detail is impeccable, leaving viewers satisfied in the end, despite the film's many shortcomings.

The first thing to notice about Bridge of Spies is that it is distinctly a film of two halves. When I was in a theatrical production of Willy Wonka back in middle school, my theater teacher noted that the show was very bizarre because of the two act structure and how drastically different the two halves were. Bridge of Spies features the same style, with the film's first half focusing mainly on Abel's trial and the surrounding chaos that impacts the Donovan family, and the latter half turning its attention to the negotiations in East Berlin. And when reflecting on the film, I couldn't decide if this was a bad or a good thing. It didn't necessarily hurt the content or the storytelling in any way, but there is a strong tonal difference between the two halves and it becomes a problem at some points.

However, one thing remains consistent: the performances of Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, who are the true anchors of this film. Sure, Amy Ryan and Jesse Plemons show up and give pretty solid supporting performances, but the two constants of Bridge of Spies are Hanks and Rylance. Hanks isn't as stunning here as he was in something like Captain Phillips or Forrest Gump, yet he stands out as the moral center of the film and everything rests on his shoulders. Rylance gives the better performance as Abel, and he had the much more difficult task to accomplish. The famous theatre actor needed to make a Soviet spy likable for the audience, and he does it with ease and grace, making Abel a respectable and lovable human being. It's a terrific performance and one that will easily get Oscar attention.

The script by the Coen Brothers is also flavorful and fresh, adding some depth, warmth and humor to what could be a rather ho-hum subject. Because let's face it- negotiations over hostages between two countries, even during a time as tumultuous as the early Cold War. Thankfully Joel and Ethan Coen, acclaimed writers of dark comedies like The Big Lebowski and Fargo, inject quite a bit of life into this potentially dusty subject matter and what emerges is a film that I think most people will find something to like about. The one downside of the screenplay is that it does get a bit didactic and preachy at times, but I feel like that may have been more of a Spielberg addition to the plot.

Speaking of Spielberg, he does a pretty marvelous job directing this film. You could give this man any material and he would turn it into something pretty great. That's not a knock against the material here, but I'm just saying that he elevates Bridge of Spies beyond what it could have been in the hands of another director. Scenes carry a certain tension and a level of mystery that is incredibly impressive. Sure, there are moments where it's a little rough around the edges and I feel like some fat could have been trimmed, yet even at a lengthy runtime that approaches 2.5 hours, Bridge of Spies never slacks.

But there's something missing from Bridge of Spies. Despite all of its writing and acting perfection, there is a sense that this movie could have been better. Maybe the film was missing John Williams' magic touch. Thomas Newman's score is solid, but it never approaches Williams-level brilliance. Maybe Janusz Kaminski's cinematography, where every scene is drastically overlit, really did take me out of the film. Or maybe, Bridge of Spies was so incredibly rock-solid that it forgot to reach for something higher. There feels like a lack of vision in this film- it's admittedly small-scale and it never tries to go for anything more than a solid stage drama.

Bridge of Spies is a very good film and one that I think a lot of people will enjoy. But it feels so safe. This feels like the type of movie that Oscar voters will eat up like crazy and without the slightest bit of hesitation. It checks all of the right boxes, it preaches all of the right messages, and it is right in the wheelhouse that it needs to be. But by being so effectively and purely good, it sometimes forgets the elements that have made Spielberg daring, bold and uniquely incredible in the past.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.3/10)

Image Credits: Screen Rant, Variety, Huffington Post, The Guardian, Joblo

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