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Review: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg 

Premise: Based on a true story. At the height of the Cold War, an American lawyer (Tom Hanks) provides a legal defense for a Soviet spy. When an American pilot is captured while engaging in espionage in Soviet airspace, the lawyer is enlisted by the CIA to arrange a prisoner exchange.

What Works: A lot of Steven Spielberg’s movies take place in the 1930s and 40s including his World War II films and the first three Indiana Jones pictures. But recently Spielberg has begun to set his films in the post-war years with titles such as The Adventures of Tin-Tin, Catch Me If You Can, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In Bridge of Spies Spielberg deals with the paranoia of the Cold War and the film dutifully recreates the look and feel of the mid-1950s. The clothes and sets look appropriately of their time but the movie also captures the atmosphere of anxiety. In particular, the fear of a third world war and nuclear apocalypse are very palatable in this movie. As a historical piece, Bridge of Spies not only recreates 1950s America but also the Soviet-era in Russia and the post-World War II devastation of East Germany. The movie revisits the clash of civilizations narrative that was popular throughout the Cold War. However, unlike a lot of Cold War movies, Bridge of Spies advocates democratic values without being jingoistic or simplistic. Another emerging interest in Steven Spielberg’s recent films is a focus on process. Catch Me If You Can delved into the details of check fraud and identity forgery and Lincoln was a drama about the fraught process of passing federal legislation. The most interesting aspects of Bridge of Spies are the legal arguments on behalf of the Soviet Spy and the intricacies of triangular diplomacy. This is a movie about maintaining integrity in a climate of fear and in the face of opposition from within and without. The innately dry material is punched up by an intelligent and witty script credited to Matt Charman and Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Bridge of Spies also has a few notable performances. Tom Hanks has come to embody integrity in much the same way that Jimmy Stewart did and he is well cast in the lead role. The movie also features an impressive supporting performance by Mark Rylance as the Soviet spy. Rylance is impossibly cool but his performance includes many subtle details that fill out the character. 

What Doesn’t: Like Lincoln, this is a more cerebral film than a lot of Steven Spielberg’s other works and like his 2013 picture Bridge of Spies struggles to establish emotional stakes. The focus of the movie is on Tom Hanks’ character but the real consequences of this story fall on other people’s heads. The film spends little time with the captives and the push and pull of negotiations remains academic instead of dramatic. The way the plot is structured minimizes many of the most interesting aspects of this story. Bridge of Spies has a lot of plot and so it breezes through the legal argument over granting due process protections to international enemies. The reason why the historical episode of Bridge of Spies is important is the way it connects the integrity of legal procedures and institutions with the moral high ground. A lot of that is lost in the movie, especially in its second half, further diluting its pathos appeal. Bridge of Spies’ emotional remoteness is furthered by the cinematography. Janusz Kaminski has been shooting Spielberg’s movies since Schindler’s List and lately he has created very dark compositions with heavy reliance on hazy filters. The style is out of place here. The shadowy look is appropriate but the imagery lacks the grit of Saving Private Ryan and Munich. Instead Bridge of Spies just looks drab in a way that is distractingly theatrical.

Bottom Line: Bridge of Spies is a fine movie but not a great one. The story is too emotionally remote for a piece of drama but it is an adequate piece of historical filmmaking.

Episode: #567 (November 1, 2015)