Release: Friday, October 16, 2015
Written by: Matt Charman; Joel Coen; Ethan Coen
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
The Red Scare may be long since over but in Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature (!) we’re thrown right back into the thick of it as Tom Hanks is tapped to negotiate the swapping of two major (human) pawns caught in a protracted and ugly chess match of intel gathering, fear mongering and society dividing.
Bridge of Spies, the collaborative effort of almost too many Academy Award winners (is there such a thing?) — directed by Spielberg, brought to life by Hanks and penned by the Coens in conjunction with relative unknown Matt Charman — has all the makings of another Spielberg classic. While it certainly does no harm to anyone’s reputation — to state the obvious, this is a thoroughly enjoyable picture — it falls just shy of greatness. Then again, that’s a bar set so high it becomes paradoxical: not even Spielberg can top Spielberg at his finest.
In 1957 Brooklyn, suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested at his apartment and taken into custody. The American public, having been rattled by the recent Rosenberg conspiracy in which an American husband and wife had been found guilty of selling secrets to the USSR about the Americans’ development of an atomic bomb, demands Abel be sentenced to death. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is called upon to represent Abel for reasons that are still bewildering to this critic. I suppose it’s enough that Donovan’s firm knows how seriously he is committed to his duties, or maybe it’s because everyone else who was asked said no. It’s not exactly clear either way, though fortunately his meteoric rise to national prominence isn’t clumsily handled.
Of course no one, not even Donovan’s family — most notably his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) — expects Donovan to seek Abel’s acquittal; the assumption is Donovan would facilitate a fair trial as a kind of courtesy to the currently most-hated man in the country. The atmosphere is such that Abel’s fate is all but a foregone conclusion, yet Donovan seeks a lighter sentence, a 30 year stretch in prison, which would all but ensure Abel’s death anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of the Supreme Court after trying to argue evidence gathered against the Soviet (whom Donovan has curiously been sympathetic to from day one) has been tainted by an invalid search warrant. He loses the case, 5-4.
Meanwhile, an American pilot by the name of Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) has been shot down over Russian soil while on a reconnaissance mission, captured, convicted and imprisoned by a somehow less empathetic government who subjects him to torture as they similarly assume him to be a spy. Following his perhaps predictable defeat, Donovan is asked to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange for Abel, putting him at even greater odds with his fellow Americans. To further complicate matters, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American graduate student studying German economics in East Germany, is captured when he finds himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.
As we shift into the middle third of the film the environment becomes decidedly more chilly, and tension begins to build in earnest. What was supposed to be a simple, though by no means easy, exchange of one American for one Soviet, devolves into a circus of lies and misdirection, with Donovan receiving none of the hospitality overseas that he extended to Abel back home. It’s against a backdrop of post-World War II devastation and the bitter European winter our embattled lawyer has to have the toughest conversations yet. After much deliberation and with his patience wearing thin, he bluntly tells Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), Donovan’s German equivalent, there will be no deal between the U.S. and the Soviets if they can’t negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor for Abel. If there’s anything to be gained from such a hugely risky request, it’s our appreciation for why he is the man for this job — I don’t even think Hanks, the person, is quite this principled.
To reiterate, Spies isn’t vintage Spielberg and because it isn’t, it’s all too easy to dismiss as a minor entry. There’s nothing minor about a private citizen brokering this historic deal, though. There’s nothing forgettable about the way the Coens and Charman manage to create a clear dichotomy between Russian and American sentiments, even if the Coens have to censor themselves more than usual here. Spies could have been a truly dark picture, yet it understands that often violence is more potent when suggested rather than demonstrated. That’s not to say the film isn’t a sobering reminder of the state of the world in the late ’40s through the ’50s. The rampant paranoia is best captured in an early scene in which Donovan’s school-aged son is preparing for the inevitable dropping of the atomic bomb, while struggling to understand why his father is trying to protect “one of them.”
As per usual, the Spielbergian approach encompasses several different genres — historical drama, loosely-defined biopic, espionage thriller — and it’s compelling in each capacity, combining historical elements while exploring the many layers that make human beings what they are, regardless of nationality. Once more he delivers a wholesome product that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. It’s a quietly powerful picture and one well worth visiting.
Recommendation: Reliably strong work from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg makes Bridge of Spies an unexpectedly warm and enjoyable outing. Though not quite top-shelf stuff, this Cold War-set thriller should please fans of either camp and American/European history buffs. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming (maybe it’s more of a disappointment than a flat-out failure) is that the Coen brothers’ signature quirky, dark humor gets lost in the shuffle here. There’s comedy to be found, sure, but this doesn’t really feel like a product of their writing.
Running Time: 141 mins.
Quoted: “The next mistake our governments make could be the last one.”
All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.