Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg has risen to highest upper echelons of his profession by making and producing some of the most memorable movies and feature films in history. So much so (for me) his name is done a disservice with the simple utterance of him being a” Director”. No, Spielberg is more than that; his name is a brand, it’s a noun, it’s a verb, it’s a standard; it’s an expectation of the highest quality in cinematic story telling that seems to always go well beyond the norm or average.
Since his very first films “Duel” (1971), “Sugarland Express” (1974) and “Jaws”, Steven Spielberg has been on a consistent upward glide trajectory of cinematic, critical and box off success, amassing the sum of a lifetime world box office totals as a Director $4,155,901,520B and $16,222,200,000B as a Producer. That’s a lot of money folks, but what is my point? Well, you don’t have that kind of longevity nor that kind of box office excellence by being simply good, you get it because you are great. So as for me, and probably like a lot of other film fans, I am on auto pilot when he releases a new film. Largely because of the high regard I have for him at making something potentially exceptional. Such is the case in his latest true story effort titled “Bridge of Spies”.
This story begins around 1957 at the height of the Cold War and where we find the FBI has adroitly captured a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel and where in pretty much short order the communist Soviet Union has also captured a U.S. pilot named Francis Gary Powers who was shot down flying a reconnaissance mission in his seemingly advanced U-2 spy plane. Sentenced to 10 years in prison Powers' only hope is for New York lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is secretly recruited by CIA operatives, to negotiate his release in an arena where both sides politically will not acknowledge the other in any official capacity. Donovan’s only hope (as he sees it) is to use his experiences at negotiations from the Nuremberg trials in winning the young pilot’s freedom through a prisoner exchange. That’s assuming he can negotiate any release by principally using spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), as the key bargaining chip who James Donovan also help defended during his federal court trial.
PROS: “Bridge of Spies” is an exceptional film and for me is Spielberg’s best work since “Saving Private Ryan” (aaaaaah I said “since” not “as”) and should be on that short list of 10 films nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It also should garner Tom Hanks an Oscar nomination, as once again he seems to channel so effortlessly and naturally the humanity of the “ordinary guy doing good things” that was always so indicative of actor Jimmy Stewart’s films. Hanks has never been better and never more ideally suited to play someone who historically is largely and mostly obscure by name recognition and yet exudes so much of American nobility, American decency and American respect for what is just.
In addition, it’s my hope that British actor Mark Rylance who played Soviet Spy “Rudolf Abel” garners an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. He is splendid in his role here and quickly establishes a fresh perspective of what spies were really - probably like during that time in history. Without playing downward to some stereotypical angry indoctrinated zealot negatively filled with propaganda and anti-west vitriol, Rylance work here is superbly obvious from the first moments. He’s an avuncular quiet character who is unusually introspective in his thoughts, more respectful to his enemy, smart and seemingly rather matter of fact about his circumstances rather than someone you would ordinary think being quick to engage in rancor, hostility and malevolence. Rylance gives a performance that is quietly exceptional here.
Joel and Ethan Coen of “Fargo”, Blood Simple”, “Raising Arizona” and “No Country for Old Men” fame wrote an outstanding script that in the first half of the film is a cerebral legal thriller and in the second half of the film is a cerebral espionage thriller. They manage to create a polished dialog that seemed real, relevant to the times and above all very coherent without getting too bogged down into minutia and burdensome details. It would not shock me that they too get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Finally, Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Who? I won’t bore you with his background other than to say Spielberg has not made a movie without this man since “Schindler’s List” 1993. Why? He is simply the best ever, as the look and feel of this film offers the visual feel in “Mad Men-eque” detail the sensation of what people, streets, dark alleys, buildings, clothing and etc. look like with soft lights and lush rich vibrancy. And once again as well (in my mind) should get him an Oscar nomination in Cinematography.
CONS: There was one scene where we see James Donovan has his first visit at the Soviet Embassy in East Germany that involved him meeting Abel’s family that I guess was supposed to be either serious or a moment of levity. In my opinion it was neither as it came off a bit stiff and odd, but this did not detract from the film’s overall excellence.
Also, sometimes the music overlay that was sparingly used here, still seemed to be more of a nuisance than a help in establishing and or re-enforcing a certain mood. Such was a scene involving Hank where his Donovan was petitioning for an appeal to the Supreme Court. The dialog here was already very well honed and refined but was almost over shadowed with some needless violin music that was clearly an effort to enhance further what already was a passionate moment in the spoken word alone. Look, this is minor stuff that only I obsess over, most viewers won’t never notice these issues.
CONCLUSION: Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” is overall an exceptional film of historical events in a dangerous and tumultuous time. But it is also about how patriotism sometimes manifests itself, not with guns and talks of war, but in the form of those quiet patriotic efforts that feel more like watching and listening to poetry rather than the legalese terminology jargon within the nuts and bolts of diplomacy. It is respectful to a time; to a specific kind of nostalgia where people, even when dealing with their enemies; even while being commitment to their political beliefs, spoke honestly and spoke fairly to one another and above all were always respectful and decent to one another. And they did their work quietly and always dressed properly in suit and tie - no flip flop détente here.
I deliberately repeated a word in my comments in this review and I will do so again and that is Spielberg has made an “exceptional” film here. It’s “exceptional” because it is exactly that – not great but exceptional. And in every moment it was directed with an absolute precision where there is not one wasted scene or needless melodramatic moment; I believed what happened every step of the way. But in the end, this is Tom Hank’s fine work here we will remember, as once again he proves that even with middle age clearly on his face now he is still one of the finest actors ever.
There is a scene towards the very end where Hank’s Donovan is staring out of train with a faint smile. I swear it took me back to another faint smile of Hank’s in Forrest Gump where he is sitting on that bench as his son goes to school on the school bus for the first time in the final scene. I say this only to make a personal point about Hanks as an actor. No matter if his character dies in the arms of a solider in “Saving Private Ryan”, is standing in the rain getting wet in “Castaway”, is on his death bed from the ravages of AIDS in “Philadelphia”, stoically stuck in a dead space craft in “Apollo 13”, or is the voice of the animated Woody in “Toy Story”, he always makes us smile and I for one adore this quality in his work - this effortless genuine commitment by him to be sincere and decent on the big screen without trying to be (act) that way.
The fact is in ‘Bridge Of Spies” Spielberg and Hanks don’t just direct and act here, they both make us smile; they both give us poetry to our viewing souls and with that I highly recommend you all should see this “exceptional” film.