SPIELBERG’S BRIDGE OF SPIES
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a Cold War drama set in the early 1960’s. The movie is crowded with stories that all crash into each other. Sadly, they never generate any real drama. How could the man who made Jaws come to give us movies that have about as much drama as an election for President in Russia.
The movie starts by showing us a guy painting a self portrait. Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance, recently of Wolf Hall fame). is a very unlikely spy, seemingly a simple man engrossed in his work as a painter. 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 picked by the Bar Association to represent the suspected Russian spy. Out of the blue so to speak, we are told the story of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), the pilot of a US spy plan shot down while over the USSR. Powers is taken prisoner by the Soviets.
Gee, I wonder how these dots are going to get connected?
Donavan insists on giving Abel the best defense he can. In the process, he becomes as hated a figure as Abel. 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 and 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’ in spite of Donavan’s efforts. Donavan’s only success comes when he convinces the trial judge to sentence Abel to 30 years instead of the electric chair.
And this is where the plot connects the Powers spy plane story – the CIA wants to exchange Abel for Powers. It asks Donavan to act as negotiator because the US government does not want to get involved directly in the negotiations. Donavan accepts and heads to Berlin.
Now the movie could have just told us these stories and it would be a straight cold war drama – but no, its hero Donavan isn’t going to just be a pawn for the CIA. So, enter a US student studying in Germany who is caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall on the day it is erected. It seems he is trying to save a girl he is in love with, or maybe it’s just a friend – it doesn’t matter because the student is just a plot device. He is arrested on charges of being a spy for a reason that will become clear.
Donavan, after a series of cat and mouse games with various agents of the Soviets secures the deal to release Powers, but he will not agree to it unless the student is also released. The CIA goes nuts – it wants Powers and doesn’t care about the student. Donavan won’t budge – he is a decent American and we all know that decent Americans are far better than their duly elected ghastly government. Pont made. Story of stupid American student understood – he is there to be rescued.
The screenplay was pieced together by more than one person – three or maybe two and a half - Joel and Ethan Coen were brought aboard to redo the original Matt Charman script. For this reason, the script is choppy and none of the characters is fully realized – except Donavan. 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, Donavan 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 2 hours and 20 minutes long and could have been brought in less than 2 hours. There are lots of Spielberg ‘mood shots’. The music is like listening to crème puffs oozing out their 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. Not the showy stuff of Forrest Gump or Philadelphia, but the kind of roles that Henry Fonda gave us in 12 Angry Men and a host of other films. Another quietly fantastic Hanks’ performance is worth the price of admission.