Bridge of Spies Review

Posted: November 5, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

bridge of spiesWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Steven Spielberg started as career as one of the most amazing genre filmmakers of all time. Horror, science-fiction, action, the dude was able to take on each genre and embrace the best aspects of them while injecting a lot of character and heart. This resulted in a lot of classics like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, in the 80s Spielberg started to focus on making “serious, adult” films like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. I use quotes because I don’t really find those films any more adult than his initial crop of classics (which were absolutely made for adults) but there’s certainly a distinction in the type of films. Personally, I’ve always preferred Spielberg’s more genre infused fare. He’s certainly made some great non-genre work like Schindler’s List and Munich, but sometimes his more sentimental aspects can get the better of him, as with Amistad and the aforementioned Color Purple. Spielberg’s newest effort, Bridge of Spies, doesn’t really fall heavily into genre, and while it doesn’t climb to Munich heights, it is a damn good movie in its own right.

The film takes place at the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s when suspected Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested by the CIA. The American government does not want to seem unfair, and thus hires attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend Abel in court. However Donavan takes the task more seriously than intended and puts forth a serious effort to defend his client’s rights. Donavan truly believes everyone is entitled to a fair defense, a decision that puts him at odds with his family, colleagues, and the American public. The situation is further complicated when American spy pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by Russia. Talks of a trade break out between the nations, with Donavan being called upon to negotiate the swap in East Berlin.

Bridge of Spies is at its best in the first act when the focus is on Donavan taking Abel’s case. The general public immediately wants to see Abel incarcerated and even killed for being an enemy to the state. There’s certainly parallels to be drawn to the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay as well as general themes of xenophobia. Much as people seem to believe in universal human rights, many become foreigners people tend to be looser in their morals, particularly when the subject is conceptualized as an enemy. Though the Donavan is given the case as a means of maintaining American ideals, it’s quickly revealed that the motivation was really to safe face and appear virtuous. None of Donavan’s colleagues any sympathy for his efforts and the judge insists Abel be found guilty and everyone move on. It’s a really critical look at the system that still rings true today.

In these early scenes, the film actually reminded me a lot of the Frank Capra classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in that the film is about (and directed by) an optimistic, noble American trying to hold on to idealized values in the face of a harsher reality. A film that looks wants to believe simplistic notions of Americana but acknowledges things are more complicated than that. However as the film comes to a climax, Spielberg’s schmaltzier tendencies start to sneak in and the film’s power begins to fade. The climax and ending are undermined by some clichés, melodramatic dialogue, and an ending that seems to fly in the face of the tone and themes established for most of the film. After challenging perceptions of American justice for the entire runtime, the film flinches in the ending.

That isn’t to say the film becomes terrible after the first act, far from it. Spielberg may indulge in his more sentimental side, but the man is still one of the most capable craftsman in the business. This is a really well made film. The period detail is excellent and the performances are very strong. Tom Hanks is pretty much perfectly cast here as a good virtue American fighting for his values and he certainly has some great moments. Mark Rylance also finds a lot of strength in subtle decisions as Rudolf Abel. Spielberg also crafts a lot of really strong scenes. The film opens on a low-key foot chase with hardly any dialogue which is really thrilling, for example. Spielberg’s recurring cinematographer Janusz Kamiński probably steals the show here with his excellent use of lighting and period photography. The film also makes great use of its East Berlin setting in the third act.

There are moments in Bridge of Spies that felt like I was watching one of the best films of the year. There’s some really interesting and relevant political material, good performances, amazing cinematography, and is generally a really well put together film from one of cinema’s great masters. Unfortunately, it’s weighed down by some key issues which really undermine the content. All the same I’d still recommend it to pretty much anybody. This is unambiguously a movie for adults and in its best moments, it’s pretty damn good.


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