A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, May 1, 2017

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

It goes without saying that Steven Spielberg is one of the great directors, with a seldom-equaled skill at visual storytelling and at building tension and suspense. But Spielberg tries too hard to make a statement in Bridge of Spies -- something about defending the Constitution -- when it could have been simply an engaging film about Cold War tensions. It also suffers from the wrong kind of star power: Tom Hanks has devolved from a terrific actor, skilled at both comedy and drama, into the movies' iconic Good Guy. Casting him as the lawyer James Donovan, forced to defend a Soviet spy, deprives the film of any ambiguity about Donovan's defense of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Hanks's Donovan can simply wrap himself in the Constitution and we're with him all the way, even as public opinion of the time turns against him. As a film actor Hanks has lost his dark side, so we know that whoever he plays will triumph. Imagine Bridge of Spies with Donovan played by George Clooney or Bradley Cooper, stars with just a touch of shadow in their personae, and you can see what I mean. Fortunately, the film is otherwise well-cast, including Rylance's Oscar-winning turn as Abel, as well as Scott Shepherd's impatient CIA man and Sebastian Koch's duplicitous East German lawyer, and the screenplay by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen manages a good deal of suspense. (Sometimes at the expense of historical accuracy: Donovan was never shot at in his home, as the film has it.) The Coen brothers were brought in to work on the first draft of Charman's screenplay, specifically on the section in which Donovan finds himself negotiating separately with the Soviets and the East Germans to engineer an exchange of Abel for imprisoned U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who has been accidentally arrested in East Berlin. It's the best part of the movie, as Donovan wrangles not only with the conflicting egos and bureaucracies of the Soviet and East German officials but also with the CIA's insistence that only Powers need be included in the deal. Unfortunately, Spielberg doesn't know when his movie is over. Bridge of Spies should end with the exchange of spies at the bridge, but Spielberg keeps it running as Donovan boards the plane for home, returns to the arms of his family just as the news of his successful negotiation is breaking, gives his wife (Amy Ryan) the jar of marmalade he promised to bring her from London, witnesses her realization that he wasn't in London after all, and soon afterward rides to work on the bus where a woman who had previously frowned at him as a traitor now smiles at him as a hero after seeing his picture in the newspaper. All the while, Thomas Newman's score is telling us what we're supposed to feel. It's sheer sentimental anticlimax, of the sort that many critics decry in what are usually regarded as Spielberg's greatest films, Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler's List (1993). (I happen to agree that the frame story of the aging Ryan's visit to the cemetery in Normandy is unnecessary, though I think the Yad Vashem sequence at the end of the latter film can be justified by the enormity of its subject matter.)  Bridge of Spies is by no means a bad movie, but it would have been a lot better if Spielberg hadn't given in to his instinct for overemphasis.

No comments: