The arrival of Bridge Of Spies not only brings us another tried-and-true Steven Spielberg production, but also the beginning of 2015’s illustrious Oscar season – and who better to kick it off than the man who redefined mainstream success? Spielberg’s name is synonymous with sprawling Hollywood blockbusters filled with inquisitive wonder, whether they be about a boy and his cavalry horse, or an artificial robot with emotions. There’s a reason why today’s filmmakers remark about the unfortunate void left by an absence of Amblin-like features, and that’s because Spielberg turns filmmaking into a grand spectacles – no matter the material.
Now, Bridge Of Spies isn’t exactly a Saving Private Ryan war story, but more like Munich, where the “action” happens behind the scenes. Specifically, Spielberg brings to life the secret heroics of insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who successfully negotiated a trade in Communist-controlled Europe for two American hostages.
Donovan, who was first asked to represent a confirmed Russian spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), never let the negative press influence his professional duties. He went beyond his task of swapping Abel for American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), by also safely returning an economics student who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not even Donovan’s family knew the mission he was sent on, but nothing would stop the future negotiating champion from coming home victorious – not even a pesky cold.
Yet even with Spielberg’s eye for the grandiose, Bridge Of Spies plays more like a historical procedural. Running at a glacial 142 minutes, Matt Charman and the Coen brothers execute due diligence in their screenplay to recount the trials and tribulations of Cold War paranoia, but it’s nothing more than a retelling of facts. We don’t live the story, we simply watch Hanks and company pay respect to the characters they embody. By that, I mean it’s more like “Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan” versus “Tom Hanks IS James B. Donovan,” if that makes more sense. It’s a legacy story told with respect paid to all parties involved, but just know that it’s without espionage thrills and instead favors drier schoolbook material.
Tom Hanks is as prevalent as ever, but it’s Mark Rylance’s statuesque personality that plays off Hanks’ incredulous reactions. A favorite line of the film is when Abel responds “Would it help?” to questions about being fearful or worried, which not only drives home the sacrifice asked of captured spies, but also the light-hearted nature of Spielberg’s vision. Hanks’ oratory skills are persuasive and calm, as a BAR-approved lawyer would present himself, and he’s always the biggest presence in the room, but Rylance deserves credit for bonding their relationship chemistry. The likes of Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, and Sebastian Koch round out a cast of more unrecognizable faces, who are tremendously *good* at what they do – because that’s all that’s asked.
What Spielberg does best is recreate iconic settings, such as old-school Brooklyn or the guarded wall running through East Germany. Bridge Of Spies paints rubble-filled German towns with a snowy paintbrush of desolation, which all boast tremendous set design on the part of 60s styles both in and out of America. Beams of light break through boarded-up hideout windows, fancy Soviet Embassy rooms are surrounded by German poverty, and iron roadblocks turn bustling bridges into vacant showpieces – a portrait of war on the largest scale. Spielberg can damn well make a movie, but that was never the question here.
Bridge Of Spies is not about a thrilling negotiation, but the short payoff sequence that comes when Rudolf Abel crosses Glienicke Bridge at the same time as Francis Gary Powers (and Frederic Pryor elsewhere). It’s a firmly crafted Spielbergian framework that leads to a moment much bigger than the preceding two hours, but that’s the special twinkle Steven brings. This is a story about conviction, principle, and moral obligation over all else – no matter the odds – with a history lesson to boot.
Everyone deserves a chance, and Spielberg urges us to not rush judgement in the heat of the moment – albeit through a long, daunting narrative. Bridge Of Spies is classic Spielberg – an attentively detailed period piece wrapped around a good-natured core – but it’s lacking the epic signature of such a prolific filmmaker, and for that, we merely stay invested in this frigid Cold War retelling, instead of becoming lost in James B. Donovan’s frozen battle of wits.
Bridge Of Spies is a historical retelling flavored like murky potato stew, but it's still a Spielberg production, and for that, we leave enlightened by the Hollywoodized wonders of wartime espionage.