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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Bridge of Spies (spoilers)


I was shocked in the first act of Bridge of Spies.

The movie opens with a beautiful, gentle sequence in which a mild-mannered painter shows himself to be a spy.

Then we are on to Tom “Everyman” Hanks as a good-guy lawyer, relentless and committed to his clients, though perhaps not to the most honorable of ends.

As seen in the commercials, the spy is caught and Hanks is assigned to defend him.

Within 20 minutes, Hanks’s James Donovan is fighting the hurricane winds of what the film offers as a near-universal American position that the ends would justify the means if it meant the Russkie spy (they don’t use that term… but they might as well) is found guilty and sentenced to death.

The movie has me.

Spielberg and his team have recreated the late 50s perfectly and have not only two great lead actors (the second being living theater legend and “Wolf Hall” Emmy nominee, Mark Rylance as Rudolph Abel), but a parade of excellent supporting actors bringing this all to life. But the screenplay also appears to be wildly subversive.

There is no one here is playing the regular Joe fighting a bunch of people who look down their noses at him or who will shock the system from the outside. Hanks’ Donovan is part of the power elite. And the spy, Rylance’s Abel, is mild-mannered, but unquestionably working against the interests of the United States. These are the good guys!

Spielberg is telling us, right up front, that people willing to give up liberty for safety deserve neither. He is saying, quite clearly, that the judicial system, people of means, the U.S. Government, and the military are all only as honest and respectful of the U.S. Constitution as is convenient for them and their ultimate goals.

Wow. Pretty radical for a studio owner. I’m not sure that Spielberg has ever stuck his neck out this far.

Donovan & Abel go in front of a judge who has already made up his mind and finds Abel guilty without allowing proper procedure. This leads to an appeal, against the wishes of the powerful, to The U.S. Supreme Court, which refuses to overturn the quite obvious mistakes in the original trial in a 5-4 politicized decision.

Good guys lose. The system, which is wrong, wins.


CUT TO: Francis Gary Powers being trained with a few others to fly the U2 spy plane. Everyone in the military is a jackass, including Powers. As we all (well, most of us) know, Powers will crash and survive.

Where is this going?

Well, it turns out there is a second Tom “Everyman” Hanks movie coming. And it’s not particularly subversive. It’s pretty straightforward. We have shifted from Hanks as Gregory Peck to Hanks as Henry Fonda. Rylance’s Abel is not in that movie much until the end… no longer a lead… not a supporting player, though we are desperate for more of him as an audience.

This second tale is a classic fish out of water story with the added element of a Cold War travelogue.

Hanks, still the same character, is now the outsider who is brought in to do a job by the government. Handle the trade of Powers for Abel on a bridge… of spies. Hanks pretty much will do what is asked, but he is treated poorly in the process. And in time, he will find, as he did in the first act, a moral cause that he will hold higher than what he is endlessly told is his “duty.”

We get to see the building of the Berlin Wall. We get the images and feel of the comforts of the west versus the harsh lifestyle of the east.

But in terms of story, there isn’t that much difference between the communists and our democratic world. The U.S. government, as represented by the CIA and the military, doesn’t care about people… just like the other side.

Well, that’s a subversive, interesting idea. Right?

No, Not really. This movie stops mining the idea of a good man fighting his own self-interest because of his moral ideas. Hanks’ Donovan isn’t passionate about freeing Powers. He becomes much more interested in also bringing back an “innocent” non-combatant who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is when the movie could have gotten even more subversive and angry and scary and political. But it doesn’t. It lingers in Tom Hanks-as-Henry Fonda Land. We watch a beautifully rendered, luxuriously paced, rather simple film for quite a long time. It doesn’t offend… but that is kind of the problem. The primary provocation of the tale that is left, that bureaucracy – especially those based on fear – is equally problematic on either side of the bridge, is not enough in 2015. We know. We get it.

So by the end of the movie, we have a soldier coming home who no one much cares about, a spy going home who seems to have more honor than any of the other “official” players in the story, and a kid who Hanks saves… but is an apolitical cheese sandwich. We don’t like any military much. We don’t really respect the U.S. government. And really, much as we like the Hanks character, he hasn’t changed much, outside of acquiring a cold and exhaustion.

The movie ends with a humorously exhausted Hanks coming home to his loving family, not quite able (pun intended) to by honest with itself and close with the portrait of Hanks by the Russkie spy who is more honorable than the U.S. government or military and who sees Hanks, via the painted image, as a true hero.

This movie is a Capra film that feels like it wants desperately to evolve into a giant “fuck you” to American exceptionalism… but can’t quite get the middle finger to stick straight up. It is “Disappointed Capra” when it seems to want to be the angriest Sturges/Wilder/Pollack movie ever.

Bridge of Spies also reflects another Spielberg film that famously starts with one story and then shifts to another, Saving Private Ryan. Some felt that the story of saving said Private was “worth it.” (I did.) Some did not.

And Bridge has a bit of an advantage over Ryan. By the end of the “B” story, there will be a callback to the “A’ story. Once the beach as taken in Ryan, it was taken.

What Bridge goes back to is Mark Rylance’s Abel, who is the only actor given the room to create a full character aside from Hanks. Amy Ryan gets a lot out of her 6.5 minutes in the film (untimed), but when Hanks & Rylance are reunited on the bridge near the end, we are reminded again that the movie is only great when the two of them are together (or when Rylance is alone, as Spielberg makes beautiful near-silent sequences with him). But I don’t think Rylance is even in a third of the film… which is the central problem.

The man who knows things, but says almost nothing and the man who talks a lot, but can only learn what he hasn’t even imagined from the silent man is the DNA of a great movie. And I don’t mean government secrets. I mean that these men share a kind of zealotry, though Abel knows why he does – though it is unspoken – and Hanks is just becoming aware of his.

At the end of the movie, Hanks’ character has had a lot more worldly experience, but he doesn’t really know much, except that he doesn’t have a great deal of respect for governments. The rest of the stakes are incredibly low.

The politics of this period were, we all know now, hysterical and false. Both spies are guilty and unapologetic. Our hero has done pretty much exactly what we would have expected from him from his second or third scene. And the one guy other than the lead who we like seems to be going off to his death, even though he was honorable. Titles tell us otherwise before credits. So why did they have a piece of dialogue telling us otherwise and then not dramatize it? Your guess is as good as mine.

At this point in this review, I feel like I am circling, trying to find a reason to care about this film more than I do.

Is it at least a good story well told? Yeah… I guess so. It takes its time. But I can live with that. I didn’t want to run for the exit. But I did want it to get where it was going a bit faster… because it was totally apparent by the hour mark that it wasn’t going anywhere unexpected.

I would pay a lot of money to watch Hanks and Rylance in a variation on Midnight Run with very much these same characters.

I would pay a lot to watch My Dinner With Abel with these two men having dinner in Paris for two hours.

A beautifully-made movie. But I didn’t feel it. Or to be fair, I felt it and then I lost interest when it got more conventional. And no matter how much clever verbal play from the Coens, it’s not about the dialogue or the scenery or some wonderful performances… this is a big movie that just isn’t as smart as it wants to be. Munich, on the other hand, had big ideas it was pushing from start to finish. That remains Spielberg’s most daring film. Saving Private Ryan had duty and the unity of brothers in a time of war as a powerful theme from start to finish. Lincoln, which was not spry, was laser-sharp on theme from start to finish.

Either I don’t know quite what they were trying to say here… or I just didn’t care that much. Lots of nice stuff… but the 20 minutes I loved in this two hour movie just wasn’t enough for me to love the whole thing.

4 Responses to “Review: Bridge of Spies (spoilers)”

  1. chris says:

    I loved it for more than 20 minutes (45, maybe?) but I agree that Rylance is so spectacular that the movie needed to find a way to use more of him (he’d win an Oscar for this if he didn’t just vanish), and I think the real problem is when “Bridge” introduces the third storyline of the wrong-place/wrong-time student. I get that it’s part of the true story but the movie never figures out how to make it an interesting part of the story.

  2. eldrick says:

    nice shout out to Munich. I love that film.

  3. David, this review is full of interesting ideas and unexpected arguments. Probably the best article you’ve written this year. Thanks.

  4. goodvibe61 says:

    The point of the film, that doing the right thing makes you stronger, regardless of the lack of moral strength of the systems surrounding you, is powerfully and evocatively rendered here. Hanks and Rylance are both wonderful in this film.

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