Tweetable Takeaway: Despite pacing issues, Bridge of Spies is a tense, well-directed Cold War thriller. Tweet
Spielberg loves wartimes. Having explored the Civil War (Lincoln), World War I (War Horse), and nearly every perspective of World War II (1941, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), Spielberg now turns his eye toward the Cold War. Collaborating with Tom Hanks for the fourth time, Bridge of Spies is all the better with Hanks in the lead as insurance lawyer Jim Donovan. The film takes as measured a pace as Spielberg’s recent efforts (Lincoln and War Horse), delivering a well-acted and directed film with a humanist message.
The film opens in a wordless, extended sequence in which we follow Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) spend a day painting and retrieving a hidden message from the Soviet Union, all the while being followed by U.S. agents. By the end of the sequence, Abel is arrested and the amount of evidence presented against him staggeringly high. Still, Abel is afforded a fair trial and as such, needs a lawyer. Enter James Donovan (Tom Hanks), one who takes this task seriously and fairly. Most of America (and the judge of Abel’s trial himself) make up their minds as to Abel’s guilt and wish to do away with all that pesky due process and fair trial hooey. Lucky for Abel, he has a paragon of justice working for him. Donovan will stop at nothing to make sure, however guilty Abel clearly appears, he will still be afforded a fair trial.
Spielberg’s Jim Donovan could easily sit in for Capra’s Mr. Smith, a man not quite so naïve and trusting in the good of humanity as Stewart’s character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but nonetheless a beacon of optimism in the truth and goodness of America. Sure, there’s no doubt Abel is completely guilty as a spy, and continuing to create an actual defense means putting his family at risk. But by golly, Donovan is a good man, and good men stand against all adversity, not matter how towering or threatening it might be. To do what’s right at all costs is the highest virtue one can attain. And if Donovan’s family gets put in danger as a result of defending the most dangerous man in America? So be it. There’s never the slightest hesitation in Donovan’s conviction to do what’s right, which while admirable, is also slightly suspect. Does such a pure crusader of justice really exist? Bridge of Spies argues yes.
The trial ends fairly quickly, and we’re introduced to second section of the film. Two Americans are captured, military pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). In order to facilitate Powers’ release, the C.I.A. ask Donovan to negotiate the trade. Donovan agrees, but attempts to also trade Pryor as well, against the government’s instructions. Much of the movie’s tension comes from the scenes involving Donovan’s negotiations. As he’s informed, Donovan won’t be representing the government, and as such won’t have the protections of the United States should things go south. For the audience, this means increasingly tense sequences where the people Donovan is talking to might decide at any moment to throw him in the same prison as Powers or Pryor and little could be done to extract him. Even walking to and from places becomes a source of anxiety, where gangs roam the streets looking to pilfer or do worse. When Donovan is handed his passport with the special pass to get him to and from the bisected area of Berlin, that too becomes a token of worry throughout the film.
There are times the film can feel meandering. The pacing of Spielberg’s two previous films also suffered from pacing issues. Taken on their own, the scenes are always riveting. Altogether, they spell a different story. The film doesn’t benefit from being held by two different arcs in the trial, and later the negotiations. They’re inherently connected, but cause the movie to feel interminable at times. The dedication to show both Powers and Pryor in scenes before they are captured extends this feeling as well.
It’s tough to beat that directing by Spielberg, however. Traveling from one scene to the next is often a joy. Donovan orders a big breakfast in one scene, but leaves just as it arrives and doesn’t eat the heaping plates of eggs and bacon. The next scene he’s performing more negotiations in a room that’s being cleared of plates and silverware; a big breakfast has just been finished. Parallels are drawn between characters. Throughout his trial in the first half, Abel continuously dabs at his nose. Later, while in Berlin, Donovan wipes away at his own nose, having procured a cold. The picture being painted is one of homesickness, or perhaps each man is allergic to any country that isn’t their own. No matter what the explanation, the flourishes and motifs are scattered throughout, a welcome signal that an experienced director is at the helm.
Bridge of Spies suffers from the same pacing as War Horse and Lincoln, but remains a solid entry in Spielberg’s oeuvre. The story is nothing less than captivating, the acting by Tom Hanks outstanding as always. Now we only have to wait for Spielberg’s movie detailing events in the Korean War.
I give Bridge of Spies 4 nose kerchiefs out of 5
Score: 4 out of 5
Wil Loper | Contributor