Review: Bridge of Spies
Espionage is the art of mastering the mundane. A white dinner jacket, Aston Martin and showy drink order will land the death penalty in Bridge of Spies, a film that’s about the grunt work of spies and the men governments’ task with making their passive aggressive power-plays. And it’s all done by a filmmaker who is trying to make his style inconspicuous because he’s Steven Spielberg, the man whose name shadows any production, and yet Bridge of Spies is graceful when it’s not being a ‘Spielberg film’ despite a few indulgences.
The menial work of unassuming people is detrimental to this Cold War era tale (beginning in 1957) that’s based on the true story of an American insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is hired to defend a suspected KGB Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). When two Americans; a pilot (Austin Stowell) and an economics graduate student (Will Rogers) are captured in Soviet territory and are accused of being spies, Donovan is sent to negotiate their release using Abel as a bargaining chip.
A wordless 10 minute sequence opens Bridge of Spies as we spend the morning with Abel as he puts the finishing touches on a self-portrait and visits a park to retrieve a coin from under a park bench that contains a message. When Abel uses a razor to slice the edge of the coin, using a razor that says “made in America”, it’s Spielberg stacking this opener with exquisite detail to implore us to pay close attention, to spot the techniques Abel has mastered to ensure he blends in. Rylance’s Abel is in a constant shuffle, he’s plays to his age as a mystified older gentleman and is a man of few words—this remains a constant throughout the film, a poker face of utter brilliance; Rylance is outstanding. Spielberg demands your attention because every conversation or action that follows is often communicating the opposite of the literal meaning throughout Bridge of Spies. Every character is afflicted by Cold War paranoia so nobody ever addresses anything directly, it’s all code, passive threats (strangers let Donovan know they’ve had their eye on him with their knowledge of how he takes his coffee) or stand-over tactics enacted by a third party.
There’s also deniability as intelligence agencies on both sides constantly pass the buck to people they can easily throw under the bus if the plan fails. Bridge of Spies examines the power of perceptions and mistrust during the Cold War as everyone is quick to assume guilt, and guilt by association, without a trial or proper inquiry. Once Donovan is in the thick of negotiations it’s hard to tell the difference between the Americans and Soviets (aside from Spielberg’s villainous stereotyping in the costuming of anyone that isn’t American) as their tactics are identical with no real sense of actual justice. Donovan is a righteous character with nothing but honour seeping out of Hanks’ pores with his performance. Donovan clashes with a system that exploits diplomatic weaknesses to one-up the competition with the threat of nuclear war always hanging in the background to clear the playing field forever as a fail-safe. Donovan avoids being the sickly sweet hero because he is actually doing his job—as outlined in the United States Constitution and stated in one of the film’s finest scripted moments. There’s something refreshing about a man who is a stickler for the rule book, especially within the context of 2015, where the American government goes outside the rules to spy on its own people through the actions of the National Security Agency (NSA) yet hides behind the Constitution and muddled politics. People like Donovan are needed to navigate the corrupt political process to get things done. You feel that Spielberg is presenting Bridge of Spies as an allegory for our times; he’s still in Lincoln mode with no signs of checking out in favour of the escapist entertainment he’s famous for. It’s not hard hitting stuff but it’s contemporary and sharp.
Right when you forget you’re watching a Spielberg film he just can’t help but remind you by throwing in a few of his’ calling cards’ that become a hindrance. Whenever anyone is in the midst of a monologue the music swells to overemphasis the sentiment as if Spielberg mistrusts the words of screenwriters Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, that are more than worthy of standing on their own without the auditory manipulation.
If you were to do the elevator pitch on Bridge of Spies you’d probably find yourself middling between ‘great but not mind-blowing’ because of the clout that comes with such an esteemed director like ‘the Berg’; it may just end up being everyone’s twelfth favourite film of his. What’s impressive about Bridge of Spies is the proficiently on show from a filmmaker—who has more than proved himself—to tell a story well while having something to say. And sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.
The Popcorn Junkie