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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review: BRIDGE OF SPIES Tells Enjoyable Historic Tale

While Steven Spielberg is still inarguably a master of filmmaking, it has been many years since he's made something that anybody would call a masterpiece. Instead of giving us classic and oft-recreated moments like those in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, or Jurassic Park, he instead introduced the world to Nuking the Fridge. Most recently, he's delved into a series of historical dramas that, while passable, just seem to ooze the sort of family-friendly sentimentality that has become tired and uninteresting. His newest, Bridge of Spies, seems on the surface to follow in this mold, but perhaps does a few interesting things that make it a standout.

Bridge of Spies tells the story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer who was also involved in the Nuremberg trials, throughout the late 1950's and early 1960's as he gets increasingly drawn into the Cold War. In the first half of the film, the CIA has captured a Soviet spy by the name of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), and Donovan is chosen to represent his defense. Donovan takes this duty extremely seriously, and his eagerness to give Abel a fair trial in every aspect puts him and his family in physical danger. The second half of the film begins when Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in a U2 spy plane, and the CIA ask Donovan to ask as private negotiator to work out an exchange of Abel for Powers, with things only getting more complicated as a Donovan insists that they also give up a young American student is detained in East Berlin in the trade. 

Perhaps the most intriguing thing going into the movie are the writers involved: in addition to newcomer Matt Charman are both Ethan and Joel Coen, who rarely write anything they don't direct. What results is something that's fairly unique; while the script is not immediately recognizable as Coen material, there is definitely a sharpness to the dialogue that definitely comes from their polish. In addition, the trio do an excellent job making what could be an overly complex story very understandable without it seeming like it's dumbed down. In the end, we're dealing with a three-way negotiation involving Donovan, the Soviets, and the German Democratic Republic, all vying for the biggest public win and all potentially not being who they say they are, but as a viewer we only feel as confused as Donovan ever does.

While the film certainly has light elements that call back to the Coen's Millers Crossing, it is undoubtedly a Spielberg flick. As always, he does a great job telling the story visually, but often here that is less invisible than usual; he utilizes some interesting cross-cuts to emphasize some of the themes the film presents, like going from the "please rise" just before the jury passes on its verdict in the Abel case to a classroom of children standing for the pledge of allegiance. In almost every case, this makes a strong moment more powerful. Spielberg also does things less obviously, too, that emphasize the quiet, visual nature of the story. The whole opening scene of the film is almost entirely without dialogue, which ratchets up the suspense as Abel is captured, for example. Perhaps my favorite Spielberg-ism is the fact that as the film goes on, he used the cold weather in East Berlin as an opportunity to make Donovan begin to use his handkerchief in a manner exactly as Abel often did, implying that these two are quite alike in their willingness to do what they think is right for their own countries. 

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have had quite a partnership in the last twenty years, but although they have produced a few things together recently, Bridge of Spies offers the first time in over a decade since Spielberg has directed Hanks. The two are a matched pair in many respects, as Hanks seems to often embody the ideal Spielbergian protagonist, a family man with a strong moral center, and that's exactly what he does here. Hanks is quite good here as Donovan, giving him a level of dignity and depth as we wonder if his sense of moral duty goes too far when his family is put in danger. A credit to both Hanks and the script, he also does a nice job adding some lightness and humor using Donovan's personality in many of the places where the film wavers into darker territory.

The only outright negative thing about the film is the way it is shot. The film's DP is Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski, but the film feels much cheaper. This is in large part due to the odd lighting choices, in which every window seems to look out directly into the sun, so every room is overwhelmed by harsh, glowing light. It makes many of the indoor scenes feel far less real and more staged, looking more like a TV movie than a big budget drama. It may be that this is meant to be a signifier of the times past in which the film takes place, but it instead screams, "This is a set!"

All in all, Bridge of Spies is a worthwhile film, and for my money, Spielberg's best in many years. Although in the end it gets a little too cute with how perfectly things go, it is a very compelling story and is a very enjoyable watch. Either half of the film could have been its own movie–and in all honesty I would have liked to see a little more of the Abel trial bit despite the two hours and twenty minute run time–but to place them together really gives you a sense of the importance of Donovan's unlikely involvement in the Cold War and tells a satisfying story.

Bridge of Spies opens in theaters this weekend.
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