This week, we take a look at Stephen Spielberg’s latest piece, Bridge of Spies. Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, and Amy Ryan, the film is rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.
In the cold war, A lawyer, James B. Donovan recruited by the CIA and involved in an intense negotiation mission to release and exchange a CIA U-2 spy-plane pilot, Francis G. Powers that was arrested alive after his plane was shot down by the Soviet Union during a mission- with a KGB intelligence officer, Rudolf Abel who was arrested for espionage in the US (from IMDB).
7 out of 10
If you can remember, I put this film on my ‘Top 5 Most Excited For’ list way back at the beginning of this year. With Steven Spielberg directing, Tom Hanks acting, and the Coen-Brothers writing, this film is guaranteed to be a success. Might as well give it Best Picture already. This were my thoughts a few months ago when first coming across Bridge of Spies. Maybe it’s because my expectations were too high, but I can’t lie; I was rather underwhelmed. Not to say it was a bad film, because it wasn’t, it just was, well, underwhelming.
Tom Hanks is one of my favorite actors of all time, and again he delivers as James B. Donovan. As the protagonist, Hanks drives the film, and thank god he does, because without him I can’t imagine how charmless this film would be. He has charisma, humor, but also a sternness that grounds his character in the film and makes him realistic. The turmoil that his character goes through and the way he deals with it is ultimately what makes this another outstanding Hanks performance. There are some other strong showings, including Mark Rylance as a persecuted Soviet spy that Donovan grows fond of, and Amy Ryan as Donovan’s fearful, but supportive wife.
Per usual, Spielberg does an incredible job of creating the historic setting, the camera work serving to prolong the drama and keep the atmosphere of the Cold War tense, dark, and moody. This solemn tone was maintained throughout, largely due to the fantastic production design and cinematography that kept the film in the midst of the Cold War.
Yet the tension stops at the production design. For a spy thriller, I did not get much of a thrill at all. I felt the mistake was that the film was split into two parts, one being the trial of the Soviet spy, the other being Hanks’ attempt to trade the Soviet spy for the United States’ own spy. The first part felt like an interesting commentary on nationalism versus morality, whereas the second part felt like a cute middle school dance between the Americans and the Soviets, when you knew that the two would get together in the end to make a deal, but they spend the longest time skirting around it. That was my biggest problem: it was too predictable. Argo was predictable, but still thrilling. For a solid five minutes, I was convinced that Ben Affleck and co. would not get out of Iran alive. I just didn’t get that same feeling from Bridge of Spies.
Perhaps the reasoning for that is a lot of the tension built up circulates two characters that no one really cares about. Frederic Pryor and Francis Gary Powers were characters that I did not empathize with, and I doubt many others did either. There was not much development for their characters, so when they were captured, I could have cared less if they were killed or not. In fact, I liked the Soviet spy more. I’m not sure whether this can be attributed to poor acting or poor writing, but those two characters lacked appeal that removed any tension the film could have had during its final act.
Overall though, it is impossible to discredit Spielberg and Hanks from what is overall a well made film that should get nominated for plenty of Oscars. Perhaps you can attribute my disdain for the second half of the film to it being nearly 11:00 PM by that point, while being on the tail end of a double-header in which I witnessed Michael Fassbender absolutely dominate as Steve Jobs (but that is a review for another day. Soon. I promise). Bridge of Spies lacked the tension and thrill that would have made it an all time great, instead forcing it to settle with being another solid film that will be forgotten in a few years.
7.5 out of 10
Bridge of Spies brings together the powerhouse duo of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks once again, who have made successful films such as Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can, with a trun to the cold war, one of the few American history time periods Spielberg has not touched on in his filmography. Add this stellar pair with the Coen brothers (of Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men fame) writing the screenplay, and you have talent that almost guarantees a slam-dunk. And Bridge of Spies does succeed, for the most part.
The film tells the true story of James B. Donovan, played by Hanks, who was put in charge to defend a Soviet spy caught in the U.S., then ultimately has to negotiate a trade between the spy and a captured American U-2 pilot in the Soviet Union.
Above all, the craftsmanship is what makes this film shine. Spielberg and his customary cinematographer Janusz Kaminski create a world that feels so much like the time period without spoofing it. This is seen especially in the opening eight minutes, which is purely visual imagery with no dialogue, that hooks you into the story. Spielberg also uses an old style of filmmaking where he prolongs every shot for as long as possible; so when one a cut is made, it gives the audience a subconscious feeling that a beat has changed within a scene, even if it is just between two people talking. This style makes the film come alive and proves once again that Spielberg is a master of the screen.
As the case in pretty much every Spielberg film, the acting is top notch. Hanks succeeds once again in his usual charismatic role, also with some humor, making us root for him as he has to deal with both stubborn sides (with a cold as well!). But because we always see him in this every man role, it is a little safe for him, and does not necessarily stand out in his impressive filmography. But who does stand out is Mark Rylance, who plays the soviet spy. Rylance has a tranquility to him despite the character’s desperate conditions, and forces the audience to feel for him despite him being an accomplice on the other side. Other notable performances are Amy Ryan as Hanks’ wife and Austin Stowell as the captured U-2 pilot.
But for a thriller, the film has very little suspense in it. The film runs right by the numbers, with no twist and turns that keep you on the edge of your seat as most Spielberg films do. The narrative is split into two parts with the trial then the negotiations for the swap and while I found the former to really say something strong about Americans and the complication of patriotism in yesterday and today’s society, the latter feels like the story is going through the motions, despite the really great shots of the split up Berlin, where the negotiations take place.
Also I was a bit disappointed in the Coen Brothers script; it did not contain their usual idiosyncrasies or dark humor, but rather is more paint by the numbers than you would expect from them.
And if there is ever a complaint to be made about Spielberg’s films, it is his cheesy, feel-good endings, and that is no different in this one, with a very gooey conclusion from a film that was much more mature than that.
But the way the film presents its historical material is so well done that I have to recommend it on that basis alone. Even though it feels like there is something missing in it, possibly from the absence of Spielberg’s usual composer John Williams, not many films today are made with this amount of care, and so gets my support nonetheless.