Spielberg’s ‘Bridge of Spies’ (second review)

Crashing stories

Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a Cold War drama set in the early 1960s. The movie is crowded with stories that all crash into each other. Sadly, they never generate any real drama. How the man who made Jaws gives us movies with about as much drama as a Philadelphia mayoral election is beyond me.

Tom Hanks: A Henry Fonda for the 21st century. (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk - © DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.)

The movie starts by showing us a guy painting a self portrait. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, recently of Wolf Hall) is an unlikely spy, seemingly a simple man engrossed in his work. When he is arrested, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance defense attorney, a “common man” type who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children, is chosen to represent the suspected Russian spy. Out of the blue, we are shunted to the story of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), the pilot of a U.S. spy plane shot down while over the Soviet Union. Powers is taken prisoner by the Soviets. Gee, I wonder how these dots will be connected?

Donovan insists on giving Abel the best defense he can, making himself as hated a figure as his client. The trial judge, the newspapers, his friends, and even his family all try to convince him that he only has to go through the motions of representing Abel — no one expects him to get Abel acquitted because we all know he’s guilty, right? Well, yes, we all do. The audience is shown from the start that Abel really is a spy, so there is no suspense there. Abel’s trial turns into a “show trial,” and Donovan’s only success comes when he convinces the trial judge to sentence Abel to 30 years instead of the electric chair.

This is where the plot connects the Powers spy plane story — the CIA wants to exchange Abel for Powers, and they ask Donovan to negotiate the deal. In Berlin, after a series of cat and mouse games, he secures the deal to release Powers, but he will not agree to it unless a student arrested on bogus espionage charges is also released. The CIA goes nuts — they want Powers and don’t care about the student. Donovan won’t budge: He is a decent American, and we all know that decent Americans are far better than their duly elected, ghastly government.

Two and a half, maybe three screenwriters

The screenplay was pieced together by more than one person: either three or maybe two and a half, depending on how you want to count Joel and Ethan Coen, who were brought aboard to rewrite Matt Charman’s script. The result is a choppy script in which none of the characters is fully realized — except Donovan.

What I hated about Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall was his stoical almost comatose attitude to everything that happened. In this movie, he is actually more deadpan, but his lack of concern about everything is used in the plot. On more than one tense occasion, Donovan asks his client if he is worried, and Abel always answers, “Would it help?” It might help if Rylance moved an eyebrow once in awhile.

The movie is two hours and 20 minutes long and could have been brought in at less than two hours — there are lots of Spielbergian mood shots. The music is like listening to creampuffs oozing out goo then exploding at the “dramatic” points – John Williams was ill (probably indigestion listening to his own scores after Jaws) so Thomas Newman filled in as pastry conductor. There are a lot of appearances by fine actors (Alan Alda among them) who are given about as many lines as Rylance has facial expressions.

Keeping in character with Bridge of Spies, I am now going to do a flip and stitch in a new perspective: In spite of all the above, go see it. Tom Hanks is just so good at playing these kinds of roles that you shouldn’t miss it. It’s not the showy stuff of Forrest Gump or Philadelphia, but the kinds of roles that Henry Fonda played in 12 Angry Men and a host of other films. Another quietly fantastic Hanks performance is worth the price of admission.


For Mark Wolverton’s review, click here.

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