Bridge of Spies is a bit of dull historical theater propped up by the talents of Spielberg, Tom Hanks and the Coen Bros.
Bridge of Spies takes us back to the height of Cold War-era paranoia, where shadowy spy games between the U.S. and Soviet Union were played for stakes as big as nuclear annihilation. In this world of espionage, we meet Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent who is apprehended by U.S. forces and put on public trial. In order to make sure that the U.S. system of justice appears fair and balanced, the powers that be select a defense lawyer for Abel, in the form of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer who has no idea how big of a case he’s taking on.
Just running through the normal rounds of legal defense proves to be a frustrating challenge for Donovan; getting fair and even treatment is a pipe-dream in McCarthy-era America, and just doing the job to the best of his ability proves to be treacherous for Donovan’s personal reputation, and outright risky for his family. The stalwart and idealistic lawyer nonetheless presses forward with his mission to keep Abel off death row – and a good thing, too, because when a covert U.S. military operative is captured in the Soviet Union, Abel suddenly becomes the nation’s greatest bargaining chip. With new purpose, Donovan heads into the chaotic streets of East Germany to negotiate a trade – hoping all the while that he will make it home alive.
The new collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks (following Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal…) with script work by The Coen Bros. (No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading) and newcomer Matt Charman, Bridge of Spies is a slice of historical entertainment that would’ve been well served by a more in-depth TV miniseries. As a feature film, it offers little in the way of intrigue – and curiously enough, the stylistic blend of Spielberg-brand sentiment and grandeur, mixed with the Coen Bros.’ off-beat, down-home wit, proves to be a dish whose flavors never quite balance out.
On a directorial front, it’s hard to call Bridge of Spies an advancement for Spielberg. If anything, there seems to be a laziness in the director’s efforts on this one, as the film feels like a pastiche of Spielbergian tropes and visual compositions pulled from Lincoln, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal and Munich, to name a few. Those different styles never really fit seamlessly together, and the result is that the scene-to-scene flow of Bridge of Spies is disjointed and uneven. That disparity only makes the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime all that more difficult to sit through, as the pacing never really achieves momentum needed to mask the long stretch of time the film takes up in order to tell its story.
On a script level, the constant swing between rousing Spielberg idealism, taut thrills, and the Coen Bros.’ eccentric wit, manages to hinder all three aspects of the movie, while never truly allowing any one of them to flourish. There are standout scenes that fit into each of the three categories (some of the speeches are rousing, a few moments are truly tense, and there’s plenty of witty banter) – but again, these moments fail to coalesce into something that feels whole and constant. More so than most biopics, Bridge of Spies feels episodic and cursory, without ever probing deep enough or holding its focus long enough. There’s simply too much history and political theater to cover to tell an intimate character study; but too many rich characters involved to make history and its bigger themes the central focus. Stuck in the middle, Bridge of Spies neither amazes nor offends; it just passes without much significance or impact.
Perfomance-wise, Tom Hanks is once again the reliable all-American leading man he’s expected to be, managing to balance James Donovan between an attack-dog lawyer who doesn’t back down, and a good-natured family man type whose noble idealism turns his aggressive lawyering into an admirable quality, rather than that of a shyster. Famous stage actor Mark Rylance (The Gunman) is quietly powerful as Rudolf Abel, portraying the famous Soviet agent as a quiet and harmless-looking old man, who has a sharp insightful intelligence tempered by a zen-like calm composure. Many of Hanks’ scenes with Rylance carry the best evidence of Coen Bros. wit working effectively in a Spielberg film, and the Donovan/Abel relationship proves to be the strongest part of the film (too bad we are forced to deviate from it so often).
The other characters all have a Coen-esque feel to them – which isn’t to say they aren’t interesting. Famous names like Alan Alda and Amy Ryan provide great support as Donovan’s (at times wavering) family and colleagues, while good character actors like Dakin Matthews (Lincoln), Scott Shepherd (Side Effects), Peter McRobbie (The Visit), Michael Gaston (Blindspot), Victor Verhaeghe (Boardwalk Empire) and Jesse Plemmons (Breaking Bad) all fill in roles as US law enforcement, legal or military personnel involved in this slice of history. Foreign stars like Germany’s Sebastian Koch (Black Book) or Russian actor Mikhail Gorevoy (Die Another Day) make great characters out of the East German and Soviet figureheads that Donovan must negotiate with. All in all, it’s a good ensemble for its size, and everyone bolsters their part, no matter how big or small.
In the end, Bridge of Spies is a bit of dull historical theater propped up by the talents of Spielberg, Tom Hanks and the Coen Bros. It’s not at all something that needs to be seen in theaters – unless you’re part of the elder crowd who may remember this period of time (or a casual history enthusiast), or want a mellow and mature cinematic experience with some tried-and-true filmmakers. Anybody looking for a good thriller, or the “Oscar-bait” film that many expect this to be, are going to find themselves sorely disappointed. More Bridge than Spies along this journey.
Bridge of Spies is now in theaters. It is 141 minutes long, and is Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.
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